The Harper government will let a senior Conservative MP keep his foreign affairs responsibilities even though he's acknowledged sending amorous e-mails to a journalist with China’s state-controlled news agency.
The Prime Minister's Office said Saturday that Bob Dechert was asked to give a full accounting of his relationship with the woman and is allowing him to retain his post as a parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.
The PMO said it's taking Mr. Dechert at his word when he said, as he did publicly Friday, that this was merely an “innocent” friendship.
“Mr. Dechert has denied any inappropriate behaviour,” said Andrew MacDougall, associate director of communications for the Prime Minister's Office.
“We have no information to suggest otherwise.”
In a revelation that embarrassed Canada’s ruling Conservatives last week, Mr. Dechert, Conservative MP for Mississauga-Erindale, admitted sending “flirtatious” e-mails to Shi Rong, a Toronto correspondent with Xinhua News Agency.
Xinhua is the official press service for the People’s Republic of China and Western counterintelligence organizations have likened it to an intelligence agency. Ottawa has previously fired a senior Chinese-Canadian bureaucrat because she had once worked for Xinhua and kept up contacts with her former colleagues after joining the government.
Opposition parties greeted Mr. Dechert's embarrassing personal admission with a mixture of caution and scorn.
The Liberal Party declined comment on the matter while the Official Opposition New Democrats derided the Conservative MP's behaviour.
“We want this Conservative government to be more friendly on the world stage, but this isn't what we had in mind,” said Karl Belanger, senior press secretary for the NDP.
The matter came to light Thursday night when a mass e-mail was sent to more than 240 media, academic, political and business contacts across Canada. The missive contained the text of intimate messages written by Mr. Dechert, including ones where he professes love for Ms. Shi.
One e-mail, sent to Ms. Shi on April 17, 2010, from Mr. Dechert’s parliamentary office account, says: “You are so beautiful. I really like the picture of you by the water with your cheeks puffed. That look is so cute, I love it when you do that. Now, I miss you even more.”
The e-mail was signed “Bob Dechert, MP.” The sender account named was decheB9@parl.gc.ca and the recipient was firstname.lastname@example.org, which Ms. Shi has used as an e-mail account.
Late Friday afternoon, Mr. Dechert issued a statement playing down the relationship.
“The person is a journalist whom I have come to know as a friend. I met her while doing Chinese-language media communications,” the MP said.
“These e-mails are flirtatious, but the friendship remained innocent and simply that – a friendship. I apologize for any harm caused to anyone by this situation.”
Mr. Dechert’s MP website said he’s “lived in Mississauga for many years with his wife Ruth Clark.”
Trying to explain why his amorous e-mails to the Chinese reporter were made public, Mr. Dechert said: “my understanding is that her e-mails were hacked as part of an ongoing domestic dispute.”
Ms. Shi, who spoke to The Globe and Mail Thursday night, blamed her husband for the mass e-mail that contained the personal messages from Mr. Dechert, saying he “hacked my e-mail box.”
Another e-mail, dated April 20, 2010, invites Ms. Shi to watch TV for an evening Commons vote in Ottawa. “Dearest Rong,” the note began. “How is your day? Did your interviews at Royal Bank go well? Did you get enough information for your articles?”
The MP told Ms. Shi he’d just arrived in Ottawa and “I enjoyed the drive by thinking of you.”
In this e-mail, he also encouraged her to watch televised proceedings in the Commons. “We will be voting at 6:30 p.m. If you have time, watch on TV or on your computer (on the CPAC website) and I will smile at you.”
“I miss you. Love, Bob,” the e-mail concludes.
Canada’s top spy warned last year that Chinese spies had infiltrated Canadian politics.
Canadian Security Intelligence Service head Richard Fadden suggested during a TV interview in June, 2010, that two provincial cabinet ministers and a number of other government officials and employees were under the control of foreign countries as part of espionage schemes.
“We’re in fact a bit worried in a couple of provinces that we have an indication there are some political figures who have developed quite an attachment to foreign countries,” he told CBC.
China is known to be an extremely aggressive collector of intelligence and Canadian security agencies have, in the past, cited links to Xinhua as a reason to remove bureaucrats from positions where they might have access to top secret data.
For example, the government fired a senior Chinese-Canadian bureaucrat from the Privy Council Office in 2003, partly because she had once worked for Xinhua and had kept up contacts with her former colleagues after joining the Canadian government.