09/13/2011 10:01 EDT | Updated 11/13/2011 05:12 EST

Bob Dechert Scandal: Baird Stands By Parliamentary Secretary Despite Flirty Emails With Chinese Journalist


OTTAWA - The foreign affairs minister says his confidence in parliamentary secretary Bob Dechert has not been shaken by an embarrassing email exchange with a Chinese journalist.

John Baird says he's worked with the Toronto-area MP for a long time and he still trusts him, despite the flirtations involving Dechert and an employee of a state-run news agency linked to Chinese intelligence.

"Listen, I think the government has spoken to this, Mr. Dechert has spoken to this, I have spoken to this," Baird said Tuesday. "I have nothing really additional."

Baird refused further comment on the matter.

Dechert, as parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice, passed a fresh round of cabinet security checks in March, a newly disclosed document indicates.

The briefing note for Prime Minister Stephen Harper outlines the results of a renewed security review of all cabinet ministers, ministers of state and parliamentary secretaries.

Harper ordered cabinet-security clearances every two years in the wake of the Maxime Bernier affair in 2008, in which the foreign affairs minister forgot a secret briefing binder at the home of his girlfriend, who had links to Quebec biker gangs.

The March 24 document from the Privy Council Office, marked "Secret," was obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

"The renewal of background checks on members of the ministry and parliamentary secretaries has been finalized," says the note, signed by Wayne Wouters, clerk of the Privy Council.

"In 2008, the Prime Minister requested that security background checks on Ministers, Ministers of State and Parliamentary Secretaries, and their spouses or partners, be renewed every two years while the appointee occupies a position as Minister, Minister of State or Parliamentary Secretary."

Further details in the note are censored. But Dechert retained his position as parliamentary secretary immediately after the March security check — and became parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs in the cabinet shuffle soon after the May 2 election campaign.

Dechert had been parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice since March 2010.

Last week, Dechert acknowledged sending amorous notes to journalist Shi Rong, who works for the Xinhua news agency, linked to China's intelligence agencies. He insisted the relationship was "innocent."

"The person is a journalist whom I have come to know as a friend. I met her while doing Chinese-language media communications," Dechert said in a statement posted on his website.

"These emails are flirtatious, but the friendship remained innocent and simply that — a friendship."

The Globe and Mail reported that Shi said her husband had hacked her email account, which Dechert appeared to reiterate. "My understanding is that her emails were hacked as part of an ongoing domestic dispute," he said in the statement.

The flirtatious emails, distributed anonymously to almost 250 recipients last week, date to 2010.

Xinhua, created by the Chinese Communist Party in the 1930s to handle revolutionary propaganda, has grown into a multimedia empire with offices across the world and throughout China. It is run by the Chinese government in Beijing.

It is also widely known by western intelligence agencies to have links to China's intelligence services, a former senior intelligence official with CSIS told The Canadian Press.

Baird has two parliamentary secretaries. Dechert's responsibilities are for North America, not Asia, a government source told The Canadian Press.

The main role of parliamentary secretaries is to answer questions in the House of Commons when the minister is absent. They don't normally have access to secret cabinet-level information, and the only information Dechert likely had were briefing notes to answer Opposition queries in question period, the source said Saturday.

Another government source confirmed that Dechert does not handle Asia-Pacific matters, and said there is no record of him being briefed on anything related to China.