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One recurring phrase in Stephen Harper's months-long defence in the Senate scandal has been blown up: "sole responsibility."
For months, Mr. Harper has ascribed it to his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright. It was he who wrote a $90,000 cheque to cover Senator Mike Duffy's questionable expenses, and didn't tell the PM. Mr. Harper repeated that Mr. Wright had accepted sole responsibility.
Now Mr. Harper's defence that he didn't know about the payment is a smaller island surrounded by the other Tories who did, and those involved in various scheming around the affair.
Mr. Wright's $90,000 cheque isn't the Senate scandal any longer. It's now just part of the wider machinations by several senior Tories, PMO aides, senators and Conservative Party officials to get Mr. Duffy off the hook – detailed in an 80-page "information" to obtain production orders filed in court by an RCMP investigator.
The allegations haven't been proven in court, and may never be. But the document, full of excerpts of e-mails and interviews, states there were other Conservatives beyond Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy, PMO aides and senators, aware of Mr. Wright's payment – and more still knew of the Conservative Party's initial plan to pick up that tab. There were extensive negotiations with Mr. Duffy and PMO pressure to whitewash a Senate report on his expenses. The Conservative Party's chief fundraiser, Senator Irving Gerstein, even contacted accounting firm Deloitte about what its audit would say about Mr. Duffy.
Mr. Harper's defence in the scandal still focuses on Mr. Wright's $90,000 cheque, and that he didn't know about the transaction – and he quoted the RCMP document's assertion that Mr. Wright didn't tell him.
But the 80-page document still brings the Senate scandal a step closer to the Prime Minister. It indicates that after negotiations between a PMO lawyer and Mr. Duffy's lawyer, the Prime Minister gave the go-ahead for some kind of arrangement, according to one of Mr. Wright's e-mails.
What precisely did he approve? It's not clear. But it raises new questions.
The document includes exchanges of several e-mails in late February between Mr. Duffy's lawyer, Janice Payne, PMO lawyer Benjamin Perrin, and Mr. Wright, hashing out details of assurances that Mr. Duffy sought – closing reviews of his housing expenses by Deloitte auditors or a senate committee, that the Conservative Party will pay for his expenses, and that the PMO will work to ensure Conservative MPs and senators wouldn't criticize him.
Mr. Wright e-mailed Mr. Perrin with comments about what assurances the PMO could provide – and said he'd check with Mr. Gerstein to confirm the party would pay Mr. Duffy's expenses – and the next day, he sent an e-mail to Mr. Perrin confirming he'd received the go-ahead on that point. An hour later, the RCMP document states, Mr. Wright followed up with an e-mail that said: "We are good to go from the PM once Ben has his confirmation from Payne."
Does that mean that Mr. Harper approved of the initial plan for the Conservative Party to pay Senator Duffy's expenses? No, said Mr. Harper's spokesman, Jason MacDonald – the PM was not aware of any such scheme.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair asked Mr. Harper in the Commons what the go-ahead was for – but the PM didn't say. Still, the exchange in the RCMP documents suggests more than what Mr. Harper has said: that he told Mr. Duffy to repay his expenses on Feb. 13 and that was that – until he found out months later that Mr. Wright had picked up the tab.
Mr. Harper's defence in the scandal now focuses on two points – both backed up by the RCMP investigator's document. First, that he didn't know about Mr. Wright's cheque to Mr. Duffy and second, that he ordered his office to cooperate fully with RCMP investigators.
Both are important. The first point is that the Prime Minister didn't know about the payment that is now the nub of what the RCMP now alleges is a crime: bribery, fraud upon the government and breach of trust. The second is that, if there's criminal wrongdoing, he's helping the police find it. But they are saying little about the rest.
The Conservatives will hope voters will see those things, the others who knew of the payments, efforts to whitewash a report and extract Mr. Duffy from an audit, and coordinating cover stories with him, as the hurly-burly noise from of the nasty game of politics.
But Mr. Harper's defence that he didn't know about Mr. Wright's $90,000 cheque is now a narrowing haven in a wider storm.
Campbell Clark is a columnist in The Globe's Ottawa bureau.