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Harper better hope that honesty isn't a campaign issue

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has long claimed that he was kept in the dark by his own inner circle during the secretive payoff of Mike Duffy's dodgy Senate expenses.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has long claimed that he was kept in the dark by his own inner circle during the secretive payoff of Mike Duffy’s dodgy Senate expenses. This explanation has always stretched credulity, but it’s now utterly unbelievable after this week’s bombshell revelation at Duffy’s trial for fraud, bribery and breach of trust.

At the heart of the affair is the $90,000 cheque written in 2013 to pay Duffy’s improperly claimed living expenses by Nigel Wright, the millionaire businessman who at the time served as the prime minister’s chief of staff. Wright says he felt compelled to personally pay the money, after promising Duffy his costs would be covered and later learning that the Conservative Party had balked at the prospect of paying them, when officials who initially agreed to the scheme realized how steep the bill had become.

The payment was supposed to be kept secret, so that Duffy could pretend that he repaid the expenses himself. Harper later condemned the plan as a public “deception,” but one that he insists only involved Duffy and Wright.

This position is now contradicted by a heap of evidence presented to the court. It recently emerged that a half-dozen others in the prime minister’s office and the Conservative Party all knew of the party’s original intention to repay Duffy’s expenses, and some also knew that Wright ultimately paid.

That includes Ray Novak, Harper’s present chief of staff, who has been placed right in the thick of the scandal. This raises the obvious question of why the prime minister sacked Wright for deceiving the public, while Novak has stayed on. And it makes it that much more difficult to believe that Harper knew nothing about the secret payment to Duffy, as he has long insisted, when Novak, Harper’s top aide, election director and longtime personal friend, was closely involved with the decision.

No wonder Harper doesn’t want to discuss the subject. Instead, he has offered a series of evasions to the questions that have dogged him this week on the campaign trail. He “disagrees with the premise” that Novak was involved in the affair, and continues to insist that Wright and Duffy alone share the blame.

Try squaring that with what Benjamin Perrin, a former lawyer for the prime minister, first told RCMP in Feb. 2014, and elaborated upon in court this week. Perrin told the police that, during a crucial telephone call in which Wright told Duffy’s lawyer that he would personally pay the senator’s expenses, Novak was a participant.

Wright and Conservative Party spin doctors had earlier downplayed any role Novak may have played in this matter. They say he was only briefly involved with the call in question and missed the pivotal moment, and that he never read an email that further described the plan. But in Perrin’s description to police, Novak’s involvement in the decision was “black and white,” as Canadian Press reported this week.

“Ray was also there on the call when Nigel Wright said to Janice Payne he would do it, and Ray Novak also received an email, which you have, where Nigel says I’ll be providing my cheque,” Perrin told Sgt. Greg Horton.

“Ray was in that meeting, and Ray heard this, and I remember looking at Ray to see his reaction.”

It’s hard to imagine why Perrin, who worked for the prime minister at the time, would misrepresent all this to police. And if you believe Perrin, the prime minister’s alibi - that he was in the dark about the whole affair - begins to unravel.

The public still doesn’t have Novak’s side of the story. He’s suddenly nowhere to be found. But if Novak knew, how likely is it he wouldn’t tell Harper? Such a scenario would be “unfathomable,” in the words of Harper’s own spokesman, Kory Teneycke. He offered those words last week in an effort to downplay Novak’s involvement. (“I’ve known Ray for 20 years. It’s unfathomable that Ray would be aware of a payment from Nigel to Mr. Duffy and not tell the prime minister,” he said.) But now that Perrin’s testimony and emails clearly put Novak in the middle of the picture, they take on new meaning.

Put it all together - it’s “black and white” that Novak knew about plans to pay Duffy, and it’s “unfathomable” that Novak wouldn’t pass this information along to Harper - and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Harper was a part of what he himself calls a “deception” of the public.

And the whole scheme involved a lot more than the prime minister’s former top aide cutting a $90,000 cheque for the cooperation of an elected official. Thanks to the trial, we’ve also recently learned, among other things, that the prime minister’s staff also tried to shut down a supposedly confidential audit, and to rewrite a Senate report so that Duffy didn’t appear to be at fault.

None of this can be good for somebody running a federal election campaign framed on trust.