Wright 'solely responsible' for secret $90,000 deal with Duffy, Harper says

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Prime Minister Stephen Harper inspects an honour guard at Government Palace in Lima, Peru, on Wednesday, May 22, 2013. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Stephen Harper is laying all the blame on his former chief of staff for a secret deal to cover the repayment of more than $90,000 in improperly claimed expenses for Senator Mike Duffy, saying Nigel Wright is “solely responsible” for the misstep.

The Prime Minister also offered the closest thing to an apology that has come from a Conservative government official so far as he answered his first question on the Wright bailout of Mr. Duffy during an official visit to Lima.

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“Obviously, I’m very sorry that this has occurred. I’m not only sorry, I’ve been through the range of emotions. I’m sorry, I’m frustrated, I’m extremely angry about it,” Mr. Harper said.

The Prime Minister is stepping up his efforts to distance himself from the Senate expenses affair after an attempt this week to tamp it down – he told Canadians he was “not happy [and] very upset” – failed to contain a controversy that is tarnishing the Conservative government’s reputation for probity and transparency.

Mr. Wright, who resigned from the Prime Minister’s Office on May 19, remains in Ottawa, where he is preparing to answer questions in a probe by federal Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson into the $90,172 bailout. Mr. Wright used his own money to finance Mr. Duffy’s reimbursement of taxpayers for the expenses.

Mr. Harper insisted to reporters that he only learned from media reports that Mr. Wright, his most senior aide, had made arrangements to help Mr. Duffy.

“It was his personal decision, and he did this in capacity as chief of staff, so he is solely responsible, and that is why he’s resigned,” the Prime Minister said of Mr. Wright.

Mr. Harper added that he would not have approved of the bailout had he known about it.

“Had I obviously been consulted … I would not have agreed, and it is obviously for those reasons that I accepted Mr. Wright’s resignation.”

But while the Prime Minister was repentant, Mr. Duffy remained defiant on Wednesday. The senator, who has had little to say since resigning from the Conservative caucus on May 16, issued a statement applauding the Senate’s decision this week to reopen its probe of his expenses. The Conservative majority in the Senate voted on Tuesday to send them back to the internal economy committee.

Mr. Duffy said he believes the committee will clear him.

“I welcome this development. Canadians deserve to know all of the facts,” the PEI senator said.

“I am confident that when they do, they will conclude, as Deloitte has already concluded, that my actions regarding expenses do not merit criticism,” he said. He was citing a separate, independent audit that concluded Senate living allowance rules are so unclear that assessors could not determine if wrongdoing took place.

Mr. Duffy said he will “co-operate fully” with the committee and “all other authorities,” but will not speak publicly until all investigations are finished.

Mr. Harper told reporters he initially figured Mr. Duffy paid back the $90,172 out of his own pocket.

“Immediately upon learning that the source was indeed my chief of staff, Nigel Wright, I immediately asked that that information be released publicly,” he said.

The PMO on May 15 acknowledged Mr. Wright’s involvement in the case, but as recently as May 17 was saying the aide was not resigning and had “the full support of the Prime Minister.”

Mr. Harper would have found it difficult to avoid media questions on his South American business trip this week. He usually takes a few questions every day or so on foreign trips. He is also expected to speak to journalists on Thursday.

Ms. Dawson this week launched a formal investigation of Mr. Wright’s payment. The Senate Ethics Officer is also reviewing the transaction, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are reviewing expense claims paid out to several senators to see whether an investigation is warranted.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said he and his MPs will talk to Canadians about the need to eliminate the Senate and promised to campaign on it in the next election.

“We’re going to stop trying to find excuses for keeping a bunch of party hacks, bagmen, political operatives and defeated candidates sitting in appeal of the duly elected members of the House of Commons,” Mr. Mulcair told reporters on Wednesday.

The NDP has launched a website that asks Canadians to sign a petition calling for the abolition of the Senate. Mr. Mulcair said he also plans to talk to provinces and territories and mount an advertising campaign.

But Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said he is not yet ready to turn the conversation away from the involvement of Mr. Harper and his government in the current controversy.

He was skeptical about Mr. Harper’s insistence that he was unaware of the money paid to Mr. Duffy by Mr. Wright.

“I think we have to draw our own conclusions about the fact that one of the most controlling prime ministers in the history of this country would not know what was going on under his very nose,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters.

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