The revelation that Stephen Harper's top aide gave Senator Mike Duffy more than $90,000 to cover repayment of improper expense claims has dragged the Prime Minister and his office into the controversy over Senate accountability.
The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, Mary Dawson, said Wednesday that her office will review PMO chief of staff Nigel Wright's decision to bail out Mr. Duffy.
Under pressure to explain Wednesday where Mr. Duffy found the money to reimburse Parliament, the Prime Minister's Office announced it came from Mr. Wright's personal bank account. PMO officials described Mr. Wright's cheque as a gift given with no expectation of repayment. They said Mr. Harper was not told of the arrangement.
A person with knowledge of the matter told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Wright stepped in because Mr. Duffy appeared unable to make the repayments and was worried about his health.
Mr. Duffy was concerned about what would happen to his wife "if he dropped dead of a heart attack."
Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy have known each other since the 1980s, when Mr. Wright worked in prime minister Brian Mulroney's office and Mr. Duffy was a journalist. Mr. Duffy was appointed to the Senate by Mr. Harper in 2008. Mr. Wright made his fortune working for the private equity firm Onex before returning to Ottawa to take charge of the PMO in 2011.
Mr. Wright's cheque enabled Mr. Duffy, who was being hammered by opposition critics, to reimburse Parliament for the improper expenses well ahead of a report from the Senate Internal Economy Committee that ruled he should repay the money.
The expense claims of Senator Patrick Brazeau and Senator Mac Harb were also audited after media reports suggested they were improperly collecting a housing allowance.
Mr. Wright wrote the cheque in February. On Feb. 22, the PEI senator announced in a TV interview that he would repay the money, saying that while he believed he did nothing wrong, the controversy had become a distraction from his work. He repaid $90,172 in March. But he withheld financial information that external auditors had requested, telling them through his lawyer that he had made repayments and his "participation in the review of the requested information was no longer needed."
Mr. Wright's actions raised questions of whether the money was advanced to Mr. Duffy to ensure he received easier treatment from the Senate committee probe that requested the audit. There is no suggestion that the PMO interfered directly with the committee, but a source familiar with the May 9 Senate report said some of the committee members felt its language on Mr. Duffy should be less severe because he was the only senator being investigated who had already paid back the money.
Senator David Tkachuk, chair of the internal economy committee, issued a statement on Wednesday rejecting suggestions of "untoward influence" on its review of Mr. Duffy's expense claims.
It is highly unusual in Canadian politics for a political staffer to dip into personal savings to cover a politician's debts.
The PMO insisted Mr. Wright's largesse broke no rules.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair called on Wednesday for a full and independent investigation.
"The successive stories that the Conservatives have been telling simply don't hold together. ... Now the story is that the Prime Minister's chief of staff paid it back, giving [Duffy] a gift of $90,000, but the Prime Minister would be unaware of it," Mr. Mulcair said.
- With files from Justin Fauteux