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Prime Minister Stephen Harper talks with Conservative candidate for Edmonton - Strathcona Ryan Hastman, far right, and other parents during a roundtable in Beaumont, Alta., on March 28, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper talks with Conservative candidate for Edmonton - Strathcona Ryan Hastman, far right, and other parents during a roundtable in Beaumont, Alta., on March 28, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Disgraced staffer's campaign role puts Harper on defensive Add to ...

Stephen Harper found himself forced to explain Tuesday why an ex-Tory aide under investigation by the RCMP was working on the Conservative Party's 2011 campaign in Alberta.

Sebastien Togneri, a disgraced Tory staffer who quit the Harper government last fall, had signed on to help the Conservatives win the riding of Edmonton-Strathcona, Conservatives confirmed Tuesday.

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He also showed up at an Edmonton-area rally Monday night of more than 800 to cheer on Mr. Harper.

The Conservative Leader, on a campaign stop in Regina to talk up promised tax breaks for small business, immediately moved to distance the party from Mr. Togneri.

"My understanding is that he volunteered for that campaign. My understanding is that he is no longer a volunteer for that campaign - and that's all I know," he said.

The Tory Leader ignored a subsequent question posed by a reporter on the matter.

The Harper government called in the RCMP in mid-March to probe Mr. Togneri's meddling with an access-to-information request filed by a journalist. The Mounties are now conducting a preliminary inquiry to determine whether there is enough evidence to warrant a full investigation into Mr. Togneri's interference.

Conservatives, speaking on background, said party headquarters had been unaware the former aide had enlisted to join candidate Ryan Hastman's fight to take back Edmonton-Strathcona, a riding long held by the Tories that went NDP in 2008.

"There are thousands and thousands of volunteers on campaigns across the country," a Tory official said.

"He was a volunteer [in Edmonton-Strathcona]totally on his own merit," the official added.

NDP Leader Jack Layton, who was making a campaign stop in Kitchener, Ont., questioned why Mr. Togneri was being prevented from taking part in the Conservative campaign when senators in the party who are facing charges under election law are still participating in the political battle.

"It looks like they are throwing the youngster under the bus, What about the senators that are still on the public payroll," Mr. Layton. asked.

"They are the ones who were responsible for this in-and-out scheme and they are up on charges for cheating in elections and yet they are still drawing public salary and apparently still helping out Stephen Harper with his re-election. How can that be right?"

Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose announced a few weeks back that she alerted the RCMP at the recommendation of Canada's access-to-information watchdog, Suzanne Legault, who has spent a year probing Mr. Togneri's interference in a 2009 request from the media.

The federal Information Commissioner concluded that Mr. Togneri clearly interfered with a request even though he lacked the legal authority to do so.

Canada's access-to-information law governs a system that allows the public to request government records for a nominal fee but also makes it illegal for anyone to obstruct this. Those convicted of concealing or altering information - or anyone found directing them to do so - can face a fine of up to $10,000 or as long as two years in jail.

Mr. Togneri resigned from the Harper government last September.

The former aide to then-Public-Works minister Christian Paradis intervened in the release of information on that department's real estate portfolio by ordering bureaucrats to recall a package of material being mailed to a Canadian Press journalist.

"Well un-release it," Mr. Togneri said in a July 27, 2009, e-mail to a senior official in Public Work's access-to-information division. "What's the point of asking for my opinion if you're just going to release it!"

The department had initially consented to releasing the requested information in its entirety but following Mr. Togneri's intervention Public Works heavily censored the documents and made only a small portion available.

With a report from Gloria Galloway in Kitchener, Ont.

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