Stephen Harper stepped in to defend a key minister after more than 80 immigration lawyers protested a Conservative attempt to censure a colleague for suggesting the Tories helped Conrad Black gain entry to Canada.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney caught flak because his staffer pursued a complaint with the Law Society of Upper Canada against a Toronto lawyer who told reporters he felt the Conservative politician played a role in the U.K. citizen's return.
Mr. Harper, speaking to reporters Thursday during a visit to Gimli, Man., dismissed what he called these "spurious accusations" against Mr. Kenney.
Mr. Black, who relinquished his Canadian citizenship in pursuit of a British peerage, was still serving time in a Florida jail for fraud and obstruction of justice when his temporary resident permit was approved in March.
The group of immigration lawyers wrote Mr. Kenney earlier this week in defence of Guidy Mamann, the target of the law society complaint by a Kenney aide. Mr. Mamann went public about the grievance after the legal regulatory body dismissed it in July.
Blasting what they called an attempt to "muzzle freedom of expression," the lawyers echoed Mr. Mamann's position – that it was hard to imagine the Black decision was made without Mr. Kenney's input – and dared the minister to haul them before the law society, too.
"Given the high degree of control which you exercise over your department, we do not believe that you did not give your consent, either express or tacit, in relation to the [Black] request," the lawyers wrote.
The Prime Minister told reporters Thursday that Mr. Kenney had no hand in the permit decision.
"[He] took every step to ensure that this matter was handled independently by public servants. It is not in the government's interests to intervene in this matter in any way, shape or form."
The dispute between the immigration lawyers and Mr. Kenney comes at a time when there's already friction between Ottawa and legal advocates for refugees and other would-be newcomers.
The minister's wide-ranging reforms to the immigration system have in some cases changed the rules for admission to Canada and put Mr. Kenney at loggerheads with lawyers who work in the field.
Mr. Black entered Canada in May on a one-year temporary resident permit after being released from jail.
Lorne Waldman, the lawyer who gathered signatures for the letter to Mr. Kenney, said he doesn't oppose Mr. Black's return.
"It was the right decision given the fact he does not pose a danger to the public and has substantial connections," he said.
"The issue is the unprecedented speed with which he got it and also the fact that many other equally or more deserving cases are denied because of the tough-on-crime mentality of this government."
He and other immigration lawyers have said it's rare for the federal government to grant the right to reside here to convicted felons while they're still in prison.
The Harper government won't name which Immigration Department official made the final call to admit Mr. Black. There's no evidence in internal government records recently made public that Mr. Kenney's office exerted any influence.
Case management records made public under access to information say the decision rested with "an experienced immigration officer" in the visa office in Buffalo, N.Y.
Immigration records released to media also say the case officer alone ruled on the permit. "No direction was given as to the processing of the application or the result of the application."
In February, after learning of Mr. Black's application, staff for Mr. Kenney sent an email ordering the department to leave him out of the decision-making.