‘Perhaps’ I could have acted faster on Wright revelations, Harper says

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands during the opening ceremony of the VII Pacific Allianz Summit in Cali, Colombia, on May 23, 2013. (JAIME SALDARRIAGA/REUTERS)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is now admitting “perhaps” he should have acted more quickly after revelations that his chief of staff Nigel Wright dipped into his personal wealth to repay Senator Mike Duffy’s improperly claimed housing expenses.

The Prime Minister stood by his top aide for five days after news broke that Mr. Wright, a Bay Street millionaire, had personally bailed out Mr. Duffy for more than $90,000 that he needed to repay Canadian taxpayers.

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Mr. Harper, who insists he only learned of the deal from May 14 media reports, acknowledged to reporters during an official trip to Colombia that he might have responded faster. Mr. Wright finally resigned from the PMO on May 19.

“He should have told me earlier. That is why I accepted his resignation upon reflection,” the prime minister said.

“Should I have reached that conclusion earlier? Perhaps. But I think that [was] the correct conclusion.”

He also said it’s up to the Senate to decide if Mr. Duffy should be removed from the Red Chamber. The PEI senator has already resigned from the Conservative caucus and a Senate committee has reopened a probe into his conduct.

“It will be a decision for the Senate.”

Mr. Harper rejected the idea of a public inquiry into the Senate expenses controversy.

“The government has taken the absolutely appropriate actions under the circumstances. We’ve always said when these kinds of things occur, we will take action and deal with them and hold people account.”

Opposition parties have been pressing the Prime Minister’s Office to release any documents concerning the deal between Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy but Mr. Harper said Thursday he doesn’t know of any. “I am not aware of any formal agreement on this,” he said.

CTV News reported last week of a secret deal between Mr. Wright and the senator that would see his expenses repaid and the government “go easy on him.”

A Senate report on Mr. Duffy’s housing claims was toned down from earlier drafts but Conservative Senators insist they did this not because of pressure from the PMO but because the PEI politician had repaid improperly-claimed expenses.

Asked to explain the deal between his former chief of staff and Mr. Duffy, Mr. Harper said it was simple.

“It’s been very clear. Mr. Wright gave Mr. Duffy money so that what he felt [was] the right things should be done: that Mr. Duffy should repay the money he owes taxpayers. That’s my understanding,” the prime minister said.

“Obviously Mr. Wright will be answering to the Ethics Commissioner on the propriety of these actions.”

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