OTTAWA — What to make of a senior member of Stephen Harper's staff chatting with a witness in the courtroom corridors of the politically charged trial of Mike Duffy?
The Conservative campaign said Wednesday it couldn't speculate on what current director of issues management Nick Koolsbergen was saying to his predecessor Chris Woodcock, who was in the midst of testimony in the Ontario Court of Justice.
"Mr. Koolsbergen was there to take notes, just like everyone else," wrote campaign spokesman Stephen Lecce, responding Wednesday to an email sent to Koolsbergen.
Still, the hallway tete-a-tete is consistent with one element of the scandal — Mike Duffy remains the only true persona non grata in the Conservative party. Other Conservatives involved have been kept inside the fold, even receiving promotions, with only one staffer, Nigel Wright, ever repudiated for his role in the coverup.
Harper has repeatedly laid the blame for the coverup at the feet of Duffy and Wright, the "boss," refusing to entertain the notion that others should bear any responsibility.
"(Duffy) should have repaid the money when I told him so. He did not do so, and when I found out he did not do so because Mr. Wright paid those bills instead, we held the two of them responsible and accountable and that's what's happening," Harper told reporters Wednesday.
The Conservative leader has framed the scandal as one man secretly repaying the improper expenses of another. Other controversial actions of his staff and senators — efforts to curtail or glean information from a confidential audit, the whitewashing of a Senate report, the general misleading of the public — have never been directly criticized or addressed.
While Wright, Harper's former chief of staff, absorbed the brunt of the blame and lost his job in the Prime Minister's Office in May 2013, others didn't miss a career beat inside the Conservative government.
Woodcock went on to become the chief of staff to then Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, before taking an executive job at the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp.
Harper's then-principal secretary Ray Novak moved into the chief of staff job, a position he has today in addition to being a senior campaign director.
Parliamentary affairs manager Patrick Rogers became director of policy for Heritage Minister Shelly Glover.
Meanwhile, top Conservative senators involved in the scandal, who as parliamentarians are not subordinate to Wright, have never received any public criticism from Harper.
For example, Sen. Irving Gerstein, who approached an executive from an audit firm about a confidential review of Duffy's expenses, remains the chairman of the Conservative Fund of Canada. For a time, Gerstein also entertained the idea of repaying $32,000 of Duffy's expenses, a plan Harper has never publicly addressed.
Wright himself has pointed to Sen. David Tkachuk, former chairman of the powerful Senate internal economy committee, as the man who first proposed that an audit of Duffy's expenses be called off.
As for Wright, he revealed in court last week that he had exchanged messages earlier this month with Novak, and spoke to him in May or June. Last year, as he prepared to head up the London office of private equity firm Onex Corp., he was given a sendoff at the residence of the Speaker of the House of Commons, the guests at which included current Conservative campaign chairman Guy Giorno.
Harper's choice to lay blame with Wright, and refuse to acknowledge any direct responsibility of his own, also appears to contradict the government's stated position on accountability.
In the past, the Conservatives have railed against the idea that political staff members could be grilled at Commons committees, emphasizing the concept of ministerial accountability.
The current guide on accountable government for ministers and ministers of state says that ministers are "accountable for the conduct of personal staff and advisers."
Such statements were deemed important in the wake of the Liberal sponsorship scandal, when former prime minister Jean Chretien and his cabinet minister Alfonso Gagliano shifted blame onto bureaucrats and staff.
Ian Brodie, another of Harper's former chiefs of staff, wrote about accountability and political staff for the Canadian Parliamentary Review in 2012. He noted that while ministers are responsible for the actions of their staff, they need not resign for every mistake made by someone in their employ.
Still, Brodie noted that there's also a risk in not properly addressing the ethical lapses of subordinates.
"If ministers take a lackadaisical or even overly tolerant approach to accountability for their political aides, the ultimate sanction comes at the ballot box," Brodie wrote.
"The accountability of political aides is sometimes rough, but the electoral accountability of governments is much rougher."
Jennifer Ditchburn, The Canadian Press
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