Stephen Harper insisted "very few" people in Conservative circles knew that chief aide Nigel Wright was personally bailing out Senator Mike Duffy when the PEI politician faced public pressure to reimburse taxpayers for questionable expense claims.
He's pushing back against the suggestion that more than a dozen Conservatives were in on the scheme.
Media reports suggest as many as 13 Tory insiders knew of the financial assistance to Mr. Duffy – a number that raises questions about how so many people could be inside the loop without Mr. Harper being aware of what is happening.
Facing a third straight day of questions in the Commons from NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, the Conservative prime minister tried to brush aside the impression that a great many Tories knew that Mr. Wright, Mr. Harper's then-chief of staff, cut a $90,000 personal cheque to pay back Mr. Duffy's housing claims.
"He alleges that many people knew about this. That is simply not correct," Mr. Harper said. "This was Mr. Wright's decision using his own resources and by his own admission, documented, he told very few people."
Mr. Mulcair, who led the charge against Mr. Harper in the Commons Thursday, pointed out Mr. Harper's story has changed when it comes to how many Conservatives knew of the Wright gift.
The NDP chief pointed out that on June 5 Mr. Harper told the Commons nobody in the PMO had known of Mr. Wright's largesse.
On June 5, Mr. Harper said in Question Period that: "It was was Mr. Wright who made the decision to take his personal funds and give those to Mr. Duffy so that Mr. Duffy could reimburse the taxpayers. Those were his decisions. They were not communicated to me or to members of my office."
A sworn RCMP affidavit from July shows Mr. Wright told the Mounties that four Conservative insiders knew of the deal.
"Mr. Wright recalls that he told the following people that he would personally provide funds to repay Duffy's ... expenses," the affidavit says. They included Chris Woodcock, director of issues management – a job that handles hot political files – as well as legal adviser Benjamin Perrin and David van Hemmen, Mr. Wright's executive assistant. Senator Irving Gerstein, who controls the Conservative Party's taxpayer-subsidized war chest, also knew of the arrangement.
It may be that there were concentric circles of knowledge in Tory circles: an inner core who knew exactly what was going on and then others who thought the party would be bailing out Mr. Duffy – a plan that Mr. Wright told the RCMP was initially considered – and still another group who didn't know where the assistance originated.
Mr. Harper suggested all he knew was that Mr. Duffy had obtained a loan to repay the $90,000 – which is what the Senator told media at the time.
He flatly denied knowledge of Mr. Wright's gift.
"Any insinuation, any suggestion that I knew or would have known is incorrect," Mr. Harper said.
The Conservative prime minister was dragged into the Senate expenses scandal in May after the PMO acknowledged then-chief of staff Mr. Wright had personally reimbursed taxpayers for $90,000 of Mr. Duffy's housing expense claims – a matter now part of an RCMP investigation. Mr. Duffy, a former broadcast journalist and two other Harper appointees, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, are also facing possible suspensions in the Senate over alleged "gross negligence" of parliamentary resources.
The Mounties have not determined whether Mr. Wright's actions constitute an offence, but the expenses scandal has exposed the Conservative Party's dirty laundry and the PMO's inner dealings.