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Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives at a Vancouver news conference on Feb 21, 2011. (Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives at a Vancouver news conference on Feb 21, 2011. (Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

PM must explain charges against 'inner sanctum,' Liberals say Add to ...

Charges against senior Conservative Party officials in an election-financing scandal have given the Liberals more evidence to back their claims that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has subverted democracy - claims that will be revisited when an election is eventually called.

"It's pretty obvious that in Mr. Harper's Conservative Party, nothing happens without the approval of the Prime Minister. So this goes right up to the Prime Minister," Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said Friday during a campaign-style stop in Oakville, Ont. west of Toronto.

Combined with the controversy surrounding International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda, who stands accused by opposition members of misleading the House of Commons, and Mr. Harper's decision to twice prorogue Parliament, "you begin to get a disturbing pattern of disrespect for our democracy," Mr. Ignatieff says.

"I think the fundamental respect for our democracy is going to be a basic issue in an election whenever it comes," he said. "I'm not looking for an election, I'm not seeking an election. But, wherever I go across the country, more and more Canadians are saying to me: Does this government, does this Prime Minister, respect democracy?"

Four Conservative Party officials - two of them senators - were charged this week with breaking the Canada Elections Act.

Senator Doug Finley, a former party campaign manager, Senator Irving Gerstein, a major Tory fundraiser, Michael Donison, the party's former executive director and Susan Kehoe, a senior Tory staffer are accused of skirting an $18.3-million spending cap by shifting extra advertising expenses to candidates.

The charges, which come after the case was turned over the Director of Public Prosecutions - an office established by Mr. Harper to deal with cases like the Liberal sponsorship scandal - were filed in an Ontario court this week and are part of a long-running battle between Elections Canada and the Conservative Party regarding more than $1-million in expenses.

"I am most worried about the role of the Prime Minister in this. What did he know and when did he know it?" Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett told reporters Friday.

"These are his highest officials in his very inner sanctum and I think the Prime Minister has some very serious accounting to do to the people of Canada," Ms. Bennett said, noting that anyone found guilty should face severe consequences. The law, she pointed out, provides for both fines and prison terms for those who are convicted.

Elections Canada has said the Conservatives tried to claim national campaign expenses as local expenses in 67 ridings and exceed the national campaign-spending limit by $1-million. In response, the Tories, who say the scheme is legal, sued Elections Canada.

A Conservative Party official who would only speak on condition he not be identified, said Thursday night his party is unfazed. "We are not surprised. Elections Canada has been pushing for this for two years."

The Conservatives won a legal victory in their fight against Elections Canada but the elections agency is currently appealing it.

"We're disappointed that administrative charges have been laid by Elections Canada after losing in federal court and not waiting for the appeal court decision in this matter," the Tory official said. "We're confident there won't be convictions. This is an administrative and accounting dispute."

With a report from Steven Chase

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