NEWS

Harper ducks queries about fundraising chief in Duffy affair

11/21/2013 03:24 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 04:01 EST
Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not answer specific questions from reporters Thursday about whether he knew his top party fundraiser had offered to repay Senator Mike Duffy's expense claims, as the RCMP allege.

Harper was speaking at Lac-Mégantic, Que., where he announced money for a cleanup of last summer‛s deadly rail disaster.

Asked directly by a reporter about when he knew Senator Irving Gerstein, chair of the Conservative Party Fund, initially planned to repay Duffy's housing claims, Harper replied, "I said right from the outset that Mike Duffy should repay his own expenses. I was told that was what he agreed to do, and I was told that was what he had done."

Harper has always said he didn't know about his former chief of staff's payment to Duffy until May 15. Nigel Wright repaid all of Duffy's expenses — $90,000 — out of his own pocket.

RCMP documents filed in an Ottawa court and released Wednesday relate that on Feb. 22, Wright called Gerstein and asked if the fund would pay the $32,000 plus interest for Duffy's housing claims. Gerstein confirmed it would, the RCMP say in a sworn affidavit.

However, the RCMP say, once Gerstein found out the amount would be $90,000, he refused to repay the sum.

Gerstein told the Conservative Party's Calgary convention in October that he never agreed to any kind of repayment for Duffy.

Duffy ‛deliberately lying‛

The CBC's Catherine Cullen asked Harper Thursday why Gerstein and Chris Woodcock, a former PMO staffer who now works for a cabinet minister, were still part of Harper's team since RCMP documents say both were aware of the Duffy repayment.

Harper again would not directly answer, but said, after accusing Wright of "inappropriate actions" and Duffy of "deliberately lying to the public," said, "It is Mr. Duffy and Mr. Wright who are under investigation for their actions. That is what is appropriate for this case."

The CBC later asked the prime minister's director of communications for clarification about whether Harper knew about discussions between Wright and the Conservative Party concerning whether its fund would repay Duffy's expenses.

Jason MacDonald replied in an email, "The answer is no. The prime minister had no knowledge of this. Until May 15 the prime minister was of the understanding that Mr. Duffy had repaid his inappropriate expenses using his own funds."

Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair told reporters Wednesday the public deserves full answers about the repayment to Duffy. "It shouldn't have to come out in a court case," he said.

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