OTTAWA – The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner is now looking into the matter involving Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff Nigel Wright cutting a personal cheque for Senator Mike Duffy.
Commissioner Mary Dawson “is reviewing this matter in order to determine how the Conflict of Interest Act might apply, and is following up with Mr. Wright,” office spokeswoman Jocelyne L. Brisebois said in an email.
The review comes after it was revealed Wright wrote a personal cheque to cover more than $90,000 for Duffy’s improperly claimed living expenses.
It is not yet known if the Senate Ethics Officer is also looking into it, but a spokeswoman said the office cannot publicly comment on the individual circumstances of senators.
“The government believes that taxpayers should not be on the hook for improper expense claims made by Senators. Mr. Duffy agreed to repay the expenses because it was the right thing to do. However, Mr. Duffy was unable to make a timely repayment,” Harper’s spokesman Andrew MacDougall said in an email.
“Mr. Wright therefore wrote a cheque from his personal account for the full amount owing so that Mr. Duffy could repay the outstanding amount.”
A source said the payment was a gift, and it was done out of concern because Duffy was worried about his health and leaving his wife in debt.
The confirmation comes a day after CTV News reported Nigel Wright, PMO chief of staff, intervened to arrange a deal with Duffy to reimburse taxpayers $90,172 in return for financial help and a promise from the government to go easy on him.
Duffy and Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau, as well as Liberal Senator Mac Harb, were all audited over housing allowance claims.
The Prime Minister’s Office is emphasizing that Harper knew nothing of the arrangement and that no taxpayer money was used to cover the repayment.
The Conflict of Interest Code for Senators states that in general, senators should not accept gifts except “compensation authorized by law.”
But as an exception, a senator can accept gifts “received as a normal expression of courtesy or protocol, or within the customary standards of hospitality that normally accompany the Senator’s position.”
If a gift exceeds $500 in value, a senator must file a statement with the Senate Ethics Officer within 30 days.
Duffy’s public disclosure has not been updated since September 27, 2012. He said he paid back the money on March 25, 2013.
An official speaking on background said Wright and Duffy go back to the 1980s during the Brian Mulroney days. The money is considered a gift from Wright, and there is no expectation for Duffy to repay it.
The NDP said the news of Wright’s involvement underscores the need for an independent inquiry into the expense scandal.
Charlie Angus, the party’s ethics critic, said the problems won’t disappear.
“We have the abuse of taxpayers’ dollars, the leaking of a confidential audit report and allegations of a ‘cash-for-repayment’ scheme quarterbacked right out of the PMO,” Angus said.
“The dark cloud of ethical failures hanging over the Prime Minister’s Office is growing larger.”
Liberal Sen. Mac Harb and former Conservative Sen. Patrick Brazeau are fighting the Senate over tens of thousands of dollars in housing expenses they are being asked to repay.
The Conservative government has been highly critical of both Harb and Brazeau, while declaring the case closed on Duffy’s expenses.
Last week, Conservative House leader Peter Van Loan said Duffy had shown “leadership” when he made the repayment.
The Senate is now refusing to reveal the full breakdown of Duffy’s expense claims, even after an outside audit firm noted they were unable to get a full picture of Duffy’s expenses.
Duffy failed to provide auditors at Deloitte with financial statements, credit-card bills, or information on where he was when he billed the taxpayer for daily expenses. He also did not meet with the auditors, despite requests.
By looking at Duffy’s Senate cellphone bills, Deloitte eventually turned up one unusual charge: daily expenses incurred while he was in Florida. Duffy’s office had listed him as being on Senate business, but Duffy called that a clerical error.
MacDougall said the independent external audit by Deloitte looking into Senate expenses was completed and the results tabled.
“Mr. Duffy has reimbursed taxpayers for his impugned claims. Mr. Harb and Mr. Brazeau should pay taxpayers back immediately,” he said.
In February, Duffy told Canadians he would repay several years’ worth of housing allowances he admits he may have mistakenly collected, blaming “confusing” forms.
– with files from the Canadian Press