Stephen Harper is denying any knowledge of a one-time plan for the Conservative Party to repay Mike Duffy's expense claims, even though police documents suggest the Prime Minister gave some sort of approval for arrangements with Mr. Duffy at the time the party payment was being negotiated.
"I said to Mr. Duffy right from the outset, that Mr. Duffy should repay his own expenses. I was told that that was what he had agreed to do. I was told that that is what he had done. When I learned that was not the case, I took the appropriate action," he said on Thursday. Mr. Harper has said he learned of the deal on May 15.
RCMP documents released on Wednesday show that, on Feb. 22, Mr. Harper's chief of staff Nigel Wright was closing in on a deal for the party to pay back about $44,000 in questionable housing claims and legal fees for Mr. Duffy, who was appointed by Mr. Harper. Mr. Wright said in a Feb. 22 e-mail that he had "the go-ahead" on payment, but that "I do want to speak to the PM before everything is considered final." An hour later, he wrote in an e-mail: "We are good to go from the PM."
If the e-mails are accurate, they suggest Mr. Wright told the Conservative Prime Minister about the plan to use party money for the Duffy expenses. Mr. Harper flatly denied that on Wednesday, saying he was "good to go with Mr. Duffy repaying his own expenses."
As the scandal widens, Mr. Harper is sticking to the same core message: He did not know Mr. Wright wrote a $90,000 cheque for the repayment. He stepped down as chief of staff after the repayment became public.
The allegations now involve more than a dozen senior Tories, according to the court documents, meaning the controversy has moved beyond Mr. Wright's payment to Mr. Duffy. And Mr. Harper is now surrounded by the other Conservatives, PMO aides and senators who did, and were involved in various plans for dealing with the affair.
An RCMP court filing has alleged that the Conservative Party initially planned to pick up Mr. Duffy's tab; that Mr. Harper's staff pushed Tory senators to whitewash a report on Mr. Duffy's expenses and that his chief fundraiser, Irving Gerstein, called accounting firm Deloitte over what an audit it was doing on Mr. Duffy would say.
On Thursday, a Senate committee agreed to call the Deloitte auditors back to discuss the recent developments, including the revelations about Mr. Gerstein, who Mr. Harper continues to support.
The e-mails that indicate other senior Tories were involved in the plan to repay Mr. Duffy's expense claims have given Mr. Harper's opponents new impetus to point at him as the one who is – or should be – responsible.
Mr. Harper gave no indication on Thursday he is going to blame anyone beyond his former chief of staff and Mr. Duffy. "It's important to note that the inappropriate actions here were undertaken by Mr. Wright at his own initiative and obviously Mr. Duffy, who deliberately lied to the public about those things," he said on Thursday. "It is Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy who are under investigation and who are being held responsible for their actions. And that is what is appropriate in this case."
The inappropriate actions, Mr. Harper suggests, concern Mr. Wright's cheque – and he would not address the rest. In the Commons, the Conservative defence has been similar – the Prime Minister did not know about that, and ordered his office to co-operate with the RCMP investigation. The documents the RCMP released on Wednesday back up both assertions.
"The problem he's faced with is: what other avenues does he have at this point?" said Keith Beardsley, a former aide in Mr. Harper's PMO.
Mr. Harper could try to cauterize the wound, perhaps airing any other facts he might have and clearing house of anyone involved. Such a move might have changed the overall situation a few months ago, in late spring or early summer, Mr. Beardsley said. "It's probably late in the game to do it," he said. "I think at this point, you have to ride it out. You don't know what else is not out there."
Mr. Harper still faces questions – whether he knew, for instance, of the initial plan to pay Mr. Duffy's expenses with party money. The e-mails do not make it clear what Mr. Wright got him to approve. Without full clarity, there is no indication of personal culpability for the Prime Minister.
But the broadening of the group who did know of the plan involving the Conservative Party, combined with the machinations of Conservatives to whitewash a Senate report, now have the opposition arguing, in effect, that if so many PMO staffers and senior Tories were involved, Mr. Harper must bear the blame.