The RCMP has opened a criminal probe into the Senate expenses affair, casting an investigative net broadly to include former Harper chief of staff Nigel Wright's secret $90,172 bailout of Senator Mike Duffy.
Until now the force had merely acknowledged that it had been gathering evidence to determine whether an investigation was warranted.
The RCMP investigation comes as auditors have expanded their probe into Senator Pamela Wallin's expenses to include the housing allowance she claims for a residence in Ottawa. The audit initially focused on Ms. Wallin's travel expenses and was launched after the Senate administration flagged concerns with some of those claims.
The criminal probe creates twin headaches for the Harper government, which has been deflecting questions by saying Mr. Wright's gift to Mr. Duffy is under investigation by Conflict of Interest Commissioner Mary Dawson. She announced Thursday she is suspending her review of the Wright-Duffy transaction now that the Mounties are taking over.
An RCMP investigation can be expected to take much longer than a mere ethics probe, thus keeping a cloud hanging over the Prime Minister's Office as well as prolonging the time Mr. Harper will face questions on the matter. A criminal investigation also carries more weight than an ethics probe and opens up the government to accusations of more grievous wrongdoing.
A Senate committee discussed Mr. Duffy's case Thursday. Later in the day, Clerk Gary O'Brien e-mailed senators to confirm that Mr. Duffy had written a personal cheque to cover his expenses.
"The cheque received from Senator Duffy does have Senator Duffy's PEI address but it is from an Ottawa bank," Mr. O'Brien wrote in the e-mail, a copy of which was provided to The Globe. A Senate spokesperson later confirmed the information.
The RCMP has released little information on its investigation, including the sections of the Criminal Code that it thinks might have been breached. In calling for a police investigation last month, critics have questioned whether there were any conditions to the $90,000 payment, including watering down the findings of an audit into Mr. Duffy's expenses.
Mr. Harper, who was in Paris on Thursday, had no comment on the RCMP investigation. "The Prime Minister's Office has not been approached by the RCMP. We would provide any possible assistance if asked," PMO director of communications Andrew MacDougall said in a statement.
Mr. Wright also declined comment Thursday. He resigned from his post on May 19 after revelations he quietly dipped into his personal wealth so Mr. Duffy could reimburse taxpayers for improperly claimed Senate expenses.
Leaving the Senate Thursday evening, Mr. Duffy would not comment, but said he planned to keep coming to work every day. "I would have thought you guys would be following Pam," he said.
The Harper government has found itself engulfed by the Senate expenses controversy since mid-May when Mr. Wright was revealed to have secretly dipped into his own fortune to bail out Mr. Duffy over improperly claimed expenses the senator was under pressure to return to taxpayers.
News of the RCMP probe broke just before Question Period and the Conservatives tried to turn the tables on their opposition critics by refocusing debate on NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair's conduct on Parliament Hill Thursday.
Mr. Mulcair drove through a security gate as he entered the Hill, but the officer on duty did not recognize him and chased him to his parking spot. Mr. Mulcair eventually apologized for allegedly lashing out at the RCMP officer, but the Conservatives said it showed that he was unfit for government.
"Is the leader of the NDP being investigated for running five stop signs?" Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore said to NDP questions about the Mounties' Senate expenses investigation. "Is the Leader of the NDP being investigated for not listening to an RCMP officer? Will the Leader of the NDP at some point show up in this House and apologize to Canadians for breaking the law?"
The RCMP's investigations traditionally take precedence over most other government probes, given the police force's widespread powers to obtain evidence and the severity of the penalties that can flow from its findings.
This month, the Senate ethics officer placed her investigation into the spending scandal on hold to allow the RCMP to conduct its review of the file.
However, Ms. Dawson, who is responsible for ensuring that MPs and senior government officials are in compliance with the federal conflict-of-interest act and code, continued to probe the issues surrounding Mr. Wright's payment to Mr. Duffy. According to the opposition, the investigation was needed to see whether the cheque opened up any conflict-of-interest issues or any other wrongdoing.
Ms. Dawson's office revealed Thursday that it had just received a letter from the RCMP that called on the ethics watchdog to stop working on the file while the force pursued its criminal probe.
"Commissioner Dawson suspended the examination, as required [under law], when it was confirmed to her earlier today that Mr. Wright is also being investigated in relation to the same subject-matter to determine whether he has committed an offence under an Act of Parliament," the ethics watchdog's office said in a statement.
The RCMP also confirmed the development, saying it was investigating "to determine whether a criminal act has taken place."