Many questions remain unanswered about a $90,000 personal cheque given to Senator Mike Duffy from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's right-hand man, Nigel Wright, who resigned Sunday amid an expense scandal that has rocked the party.
Harper refused to speak to the press Tuesday and his address to a special meeting of caucus revealed nothing about the cheque, his former chief of staff or Duffy, who resigned from the Conservative caucus last week over the controversy about his improper Senate expenses.
While the prime minister told his caucus he was “very upset” about the conduct of “some parliamentarians and the conduct of my own office,” Harper never mentioned Wright's name, Duffy or Pamela Wallin, another Conservative senator who resigned from the Tory caucus on Friday over her expenses.
The two senators were asked to step down from the Tory caucus last week or risk the public humiliation of being turfed out, The Huffington Post Canada has learned.
Here are a few questions which still need answers:
1. What did the prime minister know and when did he know it?
The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) says Harper was kept in the dark and his chief of staff Wright never told the prime minister about his personal gift. But CTV reported Monday that Harper's former legal advisor, Benjamin Perrin, was involved in drafting a letter of understanding with Duffy. CTV reported that this letter of understanding called on Duffy to publicly declare he would repay the money, and in exchange, he would receive $90,000 and that a Senate investigation into his expense claims would "go easy" on him. (The PMO continues to insist that Harper did not know about the reported deal and was not told about it by Perrin or Wright).
Perrin released a statement on Tuesday afternoon in which he said the CTV story was false and that he was "not consulted on" and "did not participate in" Wright's decision to reimburse Duffy's expenses. "I have never communicated with the Prime Minister on this matter," he said.
How could Conservative senators on the sub-committee reviewing Duffy’s expenses know to go easy on him if they weren’t directed from above? If they were directed by the PMO, who else in that office knew about the deal? How could the prime minister not know? Was Harper's new chief of staff, Ray Novak, aware of this plan?
If Wright honestly kept this information from Harper, how could the PM initially say he stood by his chief of staff? Does Harper accept responsibility for what happened?
In his resignation letter, Wright said he did not "advise" the prime minister "of the means by which" Duffy's expenses were repaid either before or after the fact. What does that mean? Was Harper kept in the dark about the type of payment (i.e. a cheque or a money order) or perhaps Wright did not tell him whether the money was a gift or a loan. The PMO insists the money was a gift, saying Wright never expected to be paid back.
Wright has not given any media interviews nor spoken publicly save for his statement. Duffy has avoided returning calls and emails. He told reporters who met him at the airport Monday to “stay tuned” for what he had to say. The Senate meets Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. ET.
2. If Nigel Wright gave Mike Duffy a $90,000 gift, why did Duffy fail to declare it? Why were lawyers involved if Wright honestly had no expectations of being repaid? And why did Duffy take out a bank loan?
After CTV broke the news that a $90,000 payment to Duffy was made to help repay his inappropriately claimed housing expenses, Duffy told the television network that Wright was not involved and that the Royal Bank had “helped” him.
The same day, however, the PMO fessed up that Wright had written a personal cheque to Duffy for $90,127. Initially, Conservative spinners suggested Wright and Duffy were friends and it was a personal gift. Then, last Friday, Harper's spokesman Andrew MacDougall said that, at the time, the PMO felt Duffy's debt to taxpayers had to be repaid immediately and suggested that was why Wright dug into his own savings.
The PMO says Duffy's claim that he secured a bank loan “came as a complete surprise."
If Wright had given Duffy a loan, then the chief of staff would have had to declare that to Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson. She is currently investigating Wright's payment.
If Wright’s money was indeed a gift, then Duffy would have had to declare it in public registry within 60 days of receiving it. It appears, he didn’t.
3. Was there a deal whereby Duffy would accept the money and in exchange stay quiet or not participate in an independent third-party audit? Was there a tit-for-tat whereby senators representing governing party would amend a committee report to spare embarrassment to one of their own — a senator who just happened to be a popular fundraiser?
According to CTV, a letter of understanding between Mike Duffy and someone, possibly the PMO or Wright, stipulated that a Senate investigation into Duffy's expenses would "go easy" on him if he publicly said he would repay the money and used the cash to pay off his debt to taxpayers. If there was in fact a deal, Wright's gift could run afoul of various rules aimed at preventing quid-pro-quo gifts to politicians.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told the House of Commons Tuesday that as far as he knows there was no document and no agreement between Duffy and Wright.
"Our understanding is there is no such agreement," Baird said during question period.
The Huffington Post Canada, however, has learned that there was a verbal agreement between Wright and Duffy.
CTV reported the agreement stipulated Duffy would not have to participate in an audit into his expenses. A Senate committee looking into the issue sent Duffy, and senators Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau’s expense claims to Deloitte for an independent reference into their housing and living expenses. Duffy did not cooperate with Deloitte auditors. In an April letter to Conservative Senator David Tkachuk, the chair of the Internal Economy committee, Duffy said he was prepared to participate but Tkachuk told him his participation was no longer needed.
The NDP called on the RCMP Monday to investigate the matter. Last Thursday, Cpl. Lucy Shorey told HuffPost the Force could neither confirm or deny an investigation into the $90,000 payment.
Sources tell HuffPost that the committee reviewing an audit of Duffy’s expenses watered down their findings during an in-camera meeting.
In each report relating to Senators Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau’s inappropriate housing expenses, a subcommittee of the Senate’s Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration called the rules surrounding a senator’s primary and secondary residence “amply clear” and said both should reimburse living expenses.
“Your Subcommittee considers this language to be unambiguous and, plainly, if a Senator resides primarily in the NCR (National Capital Region), he or she should not be claiming living expenses for the NCR.”
The report into Duffy’s expenses — which was drafted by another subcommittee headed by Tkachuk — includes no such language.