Prime Minister Stephen Harper is sticking by the Conservative Party’s top fundraiser amid growing criticism of his role in containing the scandal over Mike Duffy’s expenses – now the subject of an RCMP probe.
Conservative Fund chair Irving Gerstein – a senator and self-styled “bagman” – initially agreed to use party money to pay back Mr. Duffy’s ill-claimed expenses earlier this year, RCMP allege. Mr. Gerstein also called a partner at Deloitte for information on an audit into Mr. Duffy’s expenses, and asked whether the audit would be stopped if Mr. Duffy repaid his expenses, court documents show.
The police allegations, released this week, have raised questions about the integrity of the audit. A Senate committee on Thursday moved to summon the Deloitte auditors back to Parliament Hill because of the developments, Senate sources said.
During Question Period on Thursday, the NDP accused Mr. Gerstein of being “an active participant” in plans to cover up the Senate scandal. However, Mr. Harper said the police probe is appropriately focused on Mr. Duffy and Nigel Wright, Mr. Harper’s former chief of staff who went on to personally repay $90,000 of Mr. Duffy’s expenses. “It is Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy who are under investigation, and who are being held responsible for their actions, and that is what is appropriate in this case,” Mr. Harper said Thursday in Lac-Mégantic, Que.
Asked whether there would be disciplinary action against Mr. Gerstein, Mr. Harper’s director of communications, Jason MacDonald, said the party’s “fund did not pay for Duffy’s inappropriate expenses. Nigel Wright did.” Court documents released Wednesday detailed what police say they’ve pieced together about the $90,000 payment so far. Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy are under criminal investigation, but haven’t been charged.
On Friday, Mr. Harper told reporters that neither or nor his office approved Mr. Gerstein’s decision to approach Deloitte on this matter.
“No,” Mr. Harper said during a visit to Winnipeg in answer to a direct question.
However, the newly released court records show that Mr. Gerstein told the Mounties that he discussed this matter with at least two officials in the PMO at the time, Mr. Wright and Patrick Rogers. After speaking to his contact at Deloitte, Mr. Gerstein was told that “the audit would continue” even if Mr. Duffy reimbursed these expenses. Mr. Gerstein relayed this information to the PMO, he said.
In his court filing, RCMP Corporal Greg Horton criticized some Conservative senators for their hazy memory and, in case of Carolyn Stewart Olsen, answers that are “not consistent with the facts.” Ms. Stewart Olsen declined comment on Thursday, but two other senators fought back.
Marjory LeBreton, the government Senate leader at the time the Duffy saga was unfolding, rejected police allegations that she provided evidence contrary to what e-mails show.
“When I met with the RCMP, I answered all questions willingly, honestly and to the best of my ability,” Ms. LeBreton told The Globe in a statement. “… I cannot answer for e-mails I was unaware of or e-mails where the claim to communicate certain information to me was not followed through on.”
Police also detailed an interview with David Tkachuk, a Conservative senator who chaired the subcommittee overseeing the audit of Mr. Duffy’s expenses. He called the police document, which said he couldn’t recall several details, “a work of fiction.”
“This [court filing] is what I call a political document by the police to get further information. So they’re going to gussy it up a little bit. It’s a work of fiction. There’s no proof to any of the allegations they make,” Mr. Tkachuk said. RCMP are seeking his e-mails, which he says he’ll provide.
Mr. Tkachuk reiterated he knew nothing about Mr. Wright’s cheque, and that the Prime Minister’s Office, of course, had a role in dealing with such a major issue.
Other senators, including Mr. Gerstein, declined comment. Asked about the latest developments, the Senate’s current Conservative leader, Claude Carignan, told reporters he’d “prefer to let the RCMP do its job.”
Deloitte defended its actions in this case, saying an “ethical wall” was put up to avoid any interference in the process – and that Mr. Gerstein’s call to Deloitte partner Michael Runia didn’t violate that. “No information related to the audit was provided to anyone who was not entitled to receive the information,” a spokesperson said. Retired RCMP officer Garry Clement said any attempt to interfere with the Deloitte audit was a risky move for anyone in Ottawa. “Unfortunately, they tried to hide and cover it up … rather that just allowing the course of justice to take its normal route,” he said in an interview.
Forensic auditor Al Rosen said auditors are regularly approached by people seeking to influence their work, and that Deloitte reacted appropriately by insulating staff working on the Senate file. “This goes on all the time,” he said.