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Harper's top aide being linked to in-and-out scandal

He's yet to be accused of anything, but Stephen Harper's new chief of staff is being dragged into a persistent controversy over whether the Conservatives deliberately exceeded spending limits in the 2006 election campaign.

Nigel Wright, who took over as the Prime Minister's top aide in January, is listed in 2008 court documents that form part of the in-and-out scandal dogging the Tories.

An affidavit sworn by one of Elections Canada investigators identifies Mr. Wright as secretary for the Conservative Fund Canada during the period in question.

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It's the fundraising arm of the Tory party and it, along with four Conservatives - including two senators - was charged last month with breaking election law in the matter.

The Tories have repeatedly played down their three-year battle with Canada's election watchdog - and the administrative charges laid - as merely a dispute over accounting. The accused party officials - including Senator Doug Finley and Senator Irving Gerstein - face charges that could lead to fines or even jail time.

But opposition parties are reviving accusations from 2008 that the Tories also falsified invoices - a charge Conservatives wholly reject - as part of the alleged campaign overspending.

And on Tuesday, opposition Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff tried to tie Mr. Wright to the controversy, calling on Mr. Harper to explain why he hasn't jettisoned the former Onex Corp. executive after the Conservative Fund was charged in February under election law.

"He is listed on an affidavit as the secretary of the Conservative Fund. He's present in 2006, in the 2006 election [team] Four of the other members of that committee have now been accused of serious violations of election law," Mr. Ignatieff told reporters. "The Prime Minister needs urgently to clarify … what is his connection with a systematic attempt to violate Canada's election law?"

Mr. Harper pointed out that Mr. Wright was not among those charged. "The individual in question has not been accused of anything," he said. "This is a dispute about whether certain election expenses, that were fully reported, are national or local. We will continue to defend our position before the courts."

Elections Canada alleges the Tory party broke the rules through a so-called in-and-out financing scheme designed to skirt a national campaign spending cap by shifting some advertising expenses to individual candidates in 67 ridings.

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Last week, a federal court ruled against the Tories in this fight, overturning a legal victory the party had argued offered it vindication in the matter. The Conservatives say they will seek leave to appeal.

During a Commons debate on a nonbinding Liberal motion for repayment of the monies received by Tory candidates in the dispute, Mr. Ignatieff's party repeatedly alleged the Tories had doctored invoices as part of the scheme.

This comes from a sworn affidavit filed by an Elections Canada investigator in 2008 who sought a warrant to raid Conservative headquarters at the time.

"I believe this alteration was carried out by the Conservative Fund Canada or the Conservative Party of Canada," Ronald Lamothe wrote in his affidavit.

Conservative Party spokesman Fred DeLorey said this is "absurd," adding that testimony before a Commons committee from the marketing company in question has since laid to rest any notion the invoices were falsified.

Neither Elections Canada nor the director of public prosecutions will discuss the charges.

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A senior official with the Harper government said Mr. Ignatieff was "reckless" in calling for Mr. Wright's departure even though the Liberal couldn't connect the aide to the advertising spending controversy.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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