OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s parliamentary House leader has denied that Conservative Sen. Mike Duffy ever promised to repay his P.E.I. housing allowance.
At least, that’s the way it sounded in the House of Commons today, although Peter Van Loan’s spokesman later insisted the minister was actually disputing something else altogether.
Van Loan was responding to reports that Duffy has reneged on his public pledge to repay tens of thousands of dollars he collected by claiming that a cottage on Prince Edward Island was his principal residence.
Duffy, a former broadcaster, issued a statement in February, in the midst of a Senate expense scandal, that said he would repay the funds.
However, Duffy told Global TV this week that he hasn’t yet repaid the money and may not, depending on what a Senate audit determines.
Under fire during question period, Van Loan at first seemed to deny that Duffy had committed to repaying the money, but officials later said he was talking about the senator’s latest remarks about the audit.
Duffy is a long-time Ottawa resident with a full-time home in the capital, making him ineligible for the secondary residence subsidy.
“Rather than let this issue drag on, my wife and I have decided that the allowance associated with my house in Ottawa will be repaid,” Duffy said in the February statement.
On Thursday, however, he told Global the money would be repaid “if repayment is required.”
“If I was wrong and made a mistake, I’ll repay it,” Duffy said. “And if I wasn’t wrong, I assume that will be reported as well.”
During question period, NDP MP Charlie Angus asked Van Loan about Duffy’s commitment to “pay back the money and put an end to his rent-an-address housing scheme” — adding the senator now appears to have adopted a “catch-me-if-you-can attitude.”
“I do not know what the honourable member is referring to in terms of Senator Duffy,” Van Loan responded.
“I do not believe he made those comments. We will wait for the findings of the (auditor’s) report, of course, but our government has been clear. We have committed to ensuring that all expenses are appropriate at the Senate, that the rules governing expenses are appropriate and that the Senate does follow through on that.”
A spokesman in Van Loan’s office later said the minister was disputing that Duffy has conceded he has not yet repaid the expense claim, not Duffy’s promise to do so.
Under the Constitution, senators must reside in the provinces they are appointed to represent. Duffy represents P.E.I., where he claims a cottage as his primary residence, although neighbours and provincial records suggest he spends little time there.
In January, the Senate’s internal economy committee asked senators who were claiming the secondary residence allowance to prove their primary home was not within 100 kilometres of the capital, as the rules require.
Duffy requested an expedited P.E.I. health card, but he was turned down by the provincial government. Provincial tax records show Duffy and his wife are identified as non-resident owners of their island cottage.