OTTAWA – Rattled Conservative and Liberal senators say they’re trying to come to terms with the RCMP’s description of meddling by the Prime Minister’s Office in the upper chamber’s business.
The 80-page court filing by the Mounties became required reading around the Senate this week.
Emails back and forth suggest Harper’s staff and his top senators helped to manipulate a Senate committee and its report into former colleague Mike Duffy’s contested living expenses. The group also tried to quash an independent audit commissioned by the Senate.
“I am a strong believer in the independence of the institution and I think it’s something we’re all going to have to reflect upon in terms of going forward and how that relationship (with elected officials) should be structured,” Conservative Sen. Bob Runciman said Thursday.
A lone Conservative staffer, Chris Montgomery, balked at the pressure from Harper’s former chief of staff Nigel Wright and others to soften a report on Duffy’s expenses. Montgomery was director of parliamentary affairs to former Conservative Senate leader Marjory LeBreton, and now works in the private sector.
“Definitely, if there was some pushback from Sen. LeBreton’s office to the effect that we have our own way to do things and it’s not up to the office of the prime minister to decide what should be and should not be in a report from a committee of this chamber, well then it’s good news,” said Conservative Sen. Pierre Claude Nolin.
Conservative Sen. Linda Frum was the only other voice — at least in the emails provided by the RCMP — to express distress at the actions of the Prime Minister’s Office early in 2013. She wrote to Harper’s principal secretary to say it was not right to protect Duffy and others, while the prime minister’s reputation and that of the Senate caucus “went up in flames.”
Frum said Wednesday she was surprised to see her email show up in the police documents.
“I was watching what was going on and I felt strongly about what I saw, and I wanted the right people to be held to account, and for it not to be left on the plates of people who had nothing to do with it,” Frum said.
Liberal senators are also reading the documents with interest, and considering if anything should be done on the floor of the Senate.
“I’ve read the documents, I find parts of them very disturbing indeed, but beyond that I don’t really want to comment,” said deputy Liberal Senate leader Joan Fraser.
“It’s going to take a little while to work through all of this and figure out what the ultimate implications are.”
A central figure in the deal with Duffy, Sen. Irving Gerstein, refused to answer questions Wednesday. Gerstein was in the loop about a plan to repay Duffy’s expenses, and approached the audit firm Deloitte at one point to find out whether the repayment would bring an end to their work as Harper’s office desired.
The RCMP allege that Duffy and Wright committed fraud, bribery and breach and trust when they struck a secret deal to have Duffy’s expenses repaid. At first, the deal involved the Conservative party paying $32,000 in expenses and $13,000 in legal fees.
Wright wrote in an Feb. 22 email that he needed to seek Harper’s approval for the plan, later saying “we are good to go from PM….”
When the expenses reached $90,000, however, the party declined to pay and Wright wound up picking up the tab.
Harper, who in Lac-Megantic, Que., on Thursday, did not directly answer a question about whether he’d been asked to approve the original plan for the party to repay Duffy’s expenses.
“I’ve said many times that I told Mr. Duffy very clearly that I expected him to pay his own inappropriate expenses,” Harper said.
“That’s what Mr. Wright said, that’s what Mr. Duffy said publicly. When I learned the contrary in May, I took the necessary action.”
In the Commons, Harper’s parliamentary secretary Paul Calandra repeated the response that Harper was telling Wright in February he was “good to go” with Duffy repaying his expenses.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair mocked the response.
“In that case, there is really only one question: Since when does the prime minister of Canada have to approve a senator repaying his own expenses?”