Prime Minister Stephen Harper continues to distance himself from the Senate expenses controversy, saying he would have ordered his chief of staff not to write a personal cheque to Senator Mike Duffy.
Mr. Harper, speaking while hosting Chilean President Sebastián Piñera in Ottawa on Thursday, took two questions from Canadian reporters, each of whom asked about the senate expenses.
He was first asked what he told his staff when the matter of Mr. Duffy's expenses first arose. He declined to say, instead saying he didn't think it was the role of the Prime Minister's Office to look into it.
"When obviously this matter broke, obviously I thought it was the responsibility of the Senate to investigate these expenses. What I knew from the outset was that if any expenses had been inappropriately claimed, they should be repaid to the taxpayer. Until the 15th of May, it was my impression that Mr. Duffy had repaid those expenses," he said.
Mr. Harper has said he knew nothing about Mr. Duffy getting help from his office until it was revealed by CTV that Mr. Harper's chief of staff, Nigel Wright, wrote a personal cheque to Mr. Duffy to help the senator repay $90,000 in housing claims to taxpayers.
He was asked Thursday how he couldn't have known.
"Yeah, look, very briefly, the facts in this case are clear. They're absolutely clear. They're not good, but they are clear and they are simple," Mr. Harper said at the appearance with the Chilean president. "Mr. Wright decided to use his own personal money to assist Mr. Duffy to reimburse the taxpayers of Canada. That's what he decided to do, and he decided not to tell me until the 15th of May, after speculation about the source of the funds appeared in the media. As soon as I learned that on the 15th of May, I made that information public. Had I known before the 15th of May, I would have made the information known earlier. And had I known about it before it happened, I would have said not to do it."
The Prime Minister has been facing a series of questions about the expenses of Mr. Duffy, who was a star on the Conservative fundraising and campaign circuit and who has repaid housing expenses only to face revelations about improperly claimed per diem expenses. Another senator appointed by Mr. Harper, Pamela Wallin, is facing an ongoing audit focusing on her travel costs.
Mr. Duffy was revealed to have made claims for Ottawa expenses on 49 days, over an 18-month period, that he wasn't actually in the city, according to a Senate committee. Elections records also suggest he billed for Senate expenses on the same days that he campaigned for the Conservatives in the 2011 federal election. Mr. Duffy asked for a public hearing to lay out his case, but did not attend meetings this week and has regularly declined comment to reporters and The Globe and Mail.
Mr. Harper and Mr. Pinera re-signed a "strategic partnership framework" between the countries, with the Prime Minister announcing Canada's beef producers will now have full access to Chilean markets as part of a "reciprocal access" agreement. The two countries also renewed a memorandum of understanding, first signed in 2008, on mining development in Chile. Mr. Harper also announced Canada will welcome 40 Chilean high-school students as part of Chile's Penguins Without Borders foreign exchange program, beginning later this year.