OTTAWA – New Democrats want a parliamentary committee to determine whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper deliberately misled the House of Commons over the Senate expenses scandal or was deceived by his own staff.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus has asked Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer to make a preliminary finding that Harper was in contempt of Parliament last spring when he repeatedly insisted no one in his office knew his chief of staff had bailed out Sen. Mike Duffy — an assurance since contradicted by the RCMP.
Angus then wants the matter referred to the procedure and House affairs committee to find out whether Harper intentionally misled the Commons or whether his staff didn’t bother to fill him in on the facts.
Angus raised the matter in a point of privilege Thursday, putting the Senate expenses scandal back on the front burner one day after the government launched a new session of Parliament with a throne speech aimed at changing the channel.
His argument was supported by other opposition parties.
However, government House leader Peter Van Loan said Harper personally knew nothing about Nigel Wright’s bailout of Duffy and that whatever he told the Commons was accurate to the best of his knowledge at the time.
Van Loan promised to make further arguments at a later date. Scheer did not immediately rule on the issue.
Wright resigned as Harper’s chief of staff last May, several days after news leaked that he had given Duffy $90,000 to reimburse the Senate for wrongly claimed living expenses.
Harper assured the Commons repeatedly that Wright acted on his own.
“As I have said repeatedly, it 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,” Harper told the Commons on June 5.
“Those were his decisions. They were not communicated to me or to members of my office.”
However, an affidavit filed in court in July by the RCMP, which is investigating the scandal, revealed that at least three other people in the Prime Minister’s Office knew about the transaction.
Wright informed the Mounties that he’d told his assistant, David van Hemmen, as well as Harper’s legal adviser, Benjamin Perrin, and Chris Woodcock, the PMO’s director of issues management. Sen. Irving Gerstein, who controls the Conservative party’s purse strings, was also in the loop, according to the RCMP affidavit.
Angus noted Thursday that Harper was grilled incessantly about the matter in the Commons for weeks yet never changed his assertion that Wright had told no one about the bailout.
“Can any Canadian seriously believe that day after day of being asked to account for what happened in his office, the prime minister never sat down with senior staff to work out the facts of the matter?” Angus told Scheer.
“It would also seem very difficult to believe that his staff would have heard him mis-stating the facts of the matter in the House and not choose to correct him …
“So this leaves us with two possibilities: either the prime minister’s staff lied to him, which left him armed with untrue answers on the highest profile story of the day and an unprecedented political scandal, or the prime minister himself perhaps chose to ignore the truth.”