Prime Minister Stephen Harper is facing long and potentially raucous weeks of interrogation from opposition leaders after RCMP documents suggest he was briefed about an earlier plan to repay the questionable expenses of Senator Mike Duffy and that many people in his office were in the loop for many months.
Mr. Harper rose repeatedly during the daily Question Period on Wednesday, the day the documents were made public, to insist he did not learn that Nigel Wright, his former chief of staff, had written a personal cheque for $90,000 to cover the amount owed by Mr. Duffy until the details of the payment were revealed in the media on May 15.
The documents suggest that the issue had been a source of consternation in the backrooms of both the Prime Minister's Office and the Senate since at least February when there was a plan floated to have the Conservative Party of Canada cover the amount owed by the senator – a plan that eventually fell through when the amount was more than the party was willing to pay.
Mr. Harper told the House, as he has been saying for many months, that he believed the money had come from Mr. Duffy, and not from Mr. Wright.
"Let me be very clear," said Mr. Harper, words that prompted an uproar from opposition benches. "Well it's right in the documents Mr. Speaker," he said, starting again, "about what Mr. Wright told the RCMP. He said he told me that Senator Duffy had agreed to repay the money, he told (the police) that he did not inform me of his personal decision to pay that money himself. When I learned of that I took the appropriate actions."
Mr. Wright left the PMO as a result of the controversy and Mr. Duffy has been suspended from the Senate without pay.
But it is the Prime Minister that the opposition MPs want to tie to the scheme.
Thomas Mulcair, the Leader of the New Democrats and the Official Opposition, grilled Mr. Harper over e-mails, many of the from Mr. Wright, that were contained in the RCMP documents.
"On Feb. 22, Nigel Wright wrote, quote, 'I do want to speak to the PM before everything is considered final." An hour later he wrote 'we are good to go from the PM.'" said Mr. Mulcair. "Mr. Speaker, what did the Prime Minister approve during that hour?"
Mr. Harper retorted that the documents make it clear he was approving what he thought was a plan to have Mr. Duffy repay the money.
"I later learned on May 15 that that was not true," he said. "And let me tell you what the conclusion of the RCMP is on this. After months of interviews and review of documents, the investigator says he is not aware of any evidence that the Prime Minister was involved in the repayment or reimbursement of money to Sen. Duffy or his lawyer. The RCMP could not be clearer."
Justin Trudeau, the Liberal Leader, told the House that Canadians deserve leaders who tell the truth – a statement that brought a loud round of heckling from the Conservatives.
"The RCMP revealed this morning that the Prime Minister's office was guilty of corruption and the Prime Minister's Office has been covering it up for months," said Mr. Trudeau, pressing on over the noise. "Does the Prime Minister still believe that he bears no responsibility for the corruption in his own office?"
Mr. Harper replied that the RCMP documents confirm that "Mr. Duffy and Mr. Wright are under investigation for their actions in this matter and they have also confirmed that this Prime Minister has been telling exactly the truth."
The opposition has a political stake in keeping the matter before the House and the public for as long as possible. And Mr. Mulcair made it clear he is keen to play prosecutor.
"Was the Prime Minister aware of the original plan to repay Mike Duffy from the Conservative party, yes or no?" the NDP Leader asked during the second round of questions.
But Mr. Harper made it clear that he will not be pushed off message. "From the very start," he said, "it has been my position that Mr. Duffy was obliged to pay his own expenses and when I learned that the opposite had happened I acted appropriately."