'Very few people' aware of Wright-Duffy deal: Stephen Harper
Prime Minister Stephen Harper says “very few people” were aware of the deal that saw his then-chief of staff, Nigel Wright, give Sen. Mike Duffy $90,000 to repay ineligible expense claims.
Harper made the assertion several times during Thursday’s question period in the House of Commons, where the opposition hammered him over a CTV News report that 13 Conservative insiders knew of the Wright-Duffy bailout deal.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair pressed the prime minister over his assertions last June that Wright “acted alone,” as well as subsequent reports that other staff in the Prime Minister’s Office knew of the deal.
Harper responded: “Mr. Wright made this decision. He has been very clear. He informed very few people. It was his own decision and his own initiative.
“Any insinuation or any suggestion that I knew or would have known is incorrect. As soon as I knew, I made this information available to the public and took the appropriate action.”
When Harper faced opposition questions about the bailout deal in the House on June 5, he said Wright chose to give his own money to Duffy, decisions that “were not communicated to me or to members of my office.”
It has since been reported that other PMO senior staff new of the deal, namely Ray Novak, then Harper’s principal secretary who now serves as chief of staff; Chris Woodcock, Harper’s director of issues management; and legal adviser Benjamin Perrin. Both Woodcock and Perrin have since left the PMO.
Duffy, along with Senators Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin, are facing motions in the Senate to suspend them without pay or benefits over alleged “gross negligence” regarding their expense claims.
The trio was forced to repay thousands of dollars after outside audits found ineligible claims. Wallin repaid more than $120,000 in travel expenses, while Duffy repaid the $90,000 in housing and other expenses. Brazeau was ordered to repay about $48,000 but missed his repayment deadline and his Senate pay is being garnished.
The RCMP is investigating the senators’ expenses, as well as those of former senator Mac Harb, who retired earlier this year.
Sen. Claude Carignan, government leader in the upper chamber, formally introduced the motions earlier this week, but debate may push the votes to early next week.
Late Thursday, before he began rehashing Wallin’s travel expenses in the Senate, Carignan said the upper chamber will sit on Friday, beginning at 9 a.m. ET.
The Senate normally does not sit on Fridays.
On Tuesday, Duffy stood in the Senate to support a motion from Sen. James Cowan that the motions be referred to a special committee that would hold public hearings.
In a lengthy speech, Duffy said the prime minister ordered him to repay the $90,000 to appease the Conservative “base,” during a meeting that included Wright on Feb. 13.
“'It's not about what you did, it's about the perception of what you did that's been created in the media,’” Duffy quoted Harper as saying. “’The rules are inexplicable to our base' ... I was ordered by the prime minister to pay the money back, end of discussion.’"
Duffy says Wright offered to “write the cheque” after he made it clear that he could not repay the money. It is unclear if Harper was present when Wright made that offer.
Duffy said it was just the three men at that February meeting. However, the prime minister says it occurred after a caucus meeting.
Mulcair jumped on that statement Thursday.
“Last May, the Prime Minister's Office published details of the Conservative caucus meeting on February 13. The Prime Minister's own spokesperson said, ‘The Prime Minister did not mention Duffy or any other senator by name,’” Mulcair said.
“Yesterday, the Prime Minister claimed that he did single out Mike Duffy by name. Both of those things cannot be true. Which one is true, which one is false? He is changing versions again.”
Harper replied that expense issues were brought up in caucus.
“In response, I was extremely clear. I said, ‘You cannot claim expenses you did not incur,’ Harper said. “That message was also delivered personally to Mr. Duffy at the end of the meeting.”
LeBreton disputes Duffy
As Harper was speaking in the House, Sen. Marjory LeBreton, former government leader in the upper chamber, rose in the Senate to dispute allegations made by Duffy in his speech to the Senate earlier this week.
LeBreton said she cannot find a memo in which Duffy said she gives him permission to claim his home in Prince Edward Island as his primary residence.
LeBreton said she “searched high and low” for the memo in question, and called on Duffy to table it in the Senate.
Duffy was not in the Senate on Thursday.
“I have searched high and low, checked my files and for the life of me I can find no memo which supposedly gives my approval to Senator Duffy to claim his property in Prince Edward Island as a principal residence in order to claim living expenses while in Ottawa,” LeBreton said.
The government leader in the Senate “does not handle individual expense claims or approve expense claims,” LeBreton said. Rather, that duty falls to the Senate Clerk and the Internal Economy Committees.
She also denied a plan Duffy says was cooked up to allow him to avoid an outside audit, be given a pass, and that LeBreton would protect him from being ousted from the Senate if the plan ever became public knowledge.
“Honourable Senators, this is unbelievable, this is false,” LeBreton said, adding that the first time she’d heard of such a proposal was in Duffy’s speech.
“Where on earth did Sen. Duffy ever get the notion that I, as part of Senate leadership, would agree that he would not be audited, that he would be given a pass,” LeBreton said. “Another blatant falsehood. I stated publicly many times that I fully supported the calling in of outside independent auditors.”
She also denied telling Duffy he should step down from caucus or risk being ousted from the Senate. She acknowledged a conversation with him that included Novak in which they told him he could either step down from caucus or they would release a statement saying he had been “removed” from caucus. Duffy chose to step down.
On Wednesday, LeBreton denied accusations from Wallin that she and Sen. Carolyn Stewart Olsen had “personal vendettas” against her.
Earlier Thursday, Senate Speaker Noel Kinsella ruled that the motion to suspend Wallin is in order and could proceed to debate, after Sen. Hugh Segal raised a point of order that because her audit was not tabled at committee due to prorogation, she was being denied due process.
When the Senate continued its discussions late Thursday after a dinner break, Independent Sen. Anne Cools stood up and demanded to know how late the session would go.
“I’m not too sure I understand why we’re still here,” she said.
“I think this is a greater shame what’s happening here. I think what’s going on here is a terrible scandal.”
She then pointed to the government’s side in the Senate and shouted: “You are ruining people’s lives! This is a disgrace. This is the Senate of Canada.”
Cools left the chamber a short time later.