The Prime Minister’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, was in close contact with the senator who has been accused of whitewashing an audit of Mike Duffy’s expenses.
David Tkachuk, the Conservative senator in charge of the committee overseeing the audit, said Mr. Wright began calling him to discuss the political fallout of the Senate expenses scandal almost as soon as it began.
The two men spoke regularly throughout the audit, Mr. Tkachuk said, but the senator insists he was not aware of Mr. Wright’s decision to write Mr. Duffy a cheque for more than $90,000.
“He’d want to know things, like ‘When is it going to be done? When is this thing over with?’ ” Mr. Tkachuk told The Globe and Mail on Thursday. “This wasn’t a police investigation, it was an audit – and we had a political problem.”
Mr. Tkachuk’s remarks show how seriously the PMO treated the expense controversy that has plunged Stephen Harper’s government into crisis. And they are the first to confirm a direct line of communication between the Senate audit committee and Mr. Wright, who resigned after news of the $90,000 gift emerged.
Mr. Harper admitted Thursday on a trip to Colombia that he “perhaps” should have acted more quickly after it was revealed that Mr. Wright had dipped into his personal wealth to repay Mr. Duffy’s improperly claimed housing expenses. The Prime Minister stood by his top aide for five days after the news broke.
“He should have told me earlier. That is why I accepted his resignation upon reflection,” Mr. Harper said.
“Should I have reached that conclusion earlier? Perhaps. But I think that [was] the correct conclusion.”
The remarks come as the RCMP confirmed it has obtained information from the Senate related to its rules for expense claims. The RCMP said it is conducting a “review” into Senate audits of the expenses of Mr. Duffy and senators Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb.
A letter released by the Senate on Thursday shows the RCMP officer in charge of “sensitive and international investigations” first wrote the Red Chamber requesting documents on May 16.
That’s the same day that Mr. Duffy announced he was quitting the Conservative caucus to sit as an independent. It was one day before Senator Pamela Wallin, also the subject of an independent audit over expense claims, also left the Tory caucus.
Mr. Tkachuk and his fellow Conservative Senators on the committee have been accused of “whitewashing” the final report into Mr. Duffy’s expenses.
Copies of a draft report of the committee show that key sentences critical of Mr. Duffy were removed from the final report.
Asked about these allegations, Mr. Tkachuk said it is extremely common for committee reports to go through several drafts. He said the final language was softer on Mr. Duffy because he had already paid back his expenses. Mr. Tkachuk said he was not aware at the time of Mr. Wright’s payment to Mr. Duffy. He declined to be specific on whether he and Mr. Wright had conversations about the wording of the report. Both Mr. Brazeau and Mr. Harb say the process was unfair and are refusing to pay back expenses.
In the interview, Mr. Tkachuk indicated that Mr. Wright wasn’t his only contact in the Prime Minister’s Office.
“We talked of some communication matters with some of the communications people there and that would be, it would be very normal stuff,” he said, without identifying any of the communications staff.
Andrew MacDougall, the Prime Minister’s director of communications, confirmed in an e-mail that Mr. Wright and other PMO officials were in contact with Mr. Tkachuk during the committee’s work.
“Senator Tkachuk’s characterization is accurate,” wrote Mr. MacDougall, who is travelling with the Prime Minister. “It is standard practice for our office to work with members of House and Senate committees to draft lines in response to committee studies and reports.”
Liberal Senator James Cowan, the opposition leader in the Senate, disagrees that such conversations are normal.
“I think that raises some very serious questions. Is it appropriate for somebody who’s conducting an audit involving outside forensic auditors to be discussing it with the Prime Minister’s Office? I think that’s very serious,” he said. “I don’t see why anybody looking at those facts would think there was anything other than interference.”
Mr. Duffy talked briefly to media Thursday as they accompanied him to his car on Parliament Hill and said he would not quit his Senate job.