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Harper says he didn’t know about chief of staff’s $90K payment to Duffy

He’s 5700 kilometers from Ottawa, but it’s still not enough distance for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to escape questions about the Senate expense scandal, and whether he knew about the $90,000 cheque his former Chief of Staff Nigel Wright cut for Senator Mike Duffy.

The payment allowed Duffy to stop co-operating with the external audit of his expenses, which eventually was forced to conclude it couldn’t account for all his spending.

“I learned of this after stories appeared in the media last week speculating on the source of Mr. Duffy’s repayments,” Harper said at a news conference in Peru, the first time he’s taken questions publicly on the scandal since it broke last week.

He said he first assumed Duffy had paid back the money – which went towards housing expenses and per diems he shouldn’t have claimed – out of his own pocket.

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“Immediately upon learning that the source was indeed my chief of staff, Nigel Wright, I immediately asked that that information be released publicly. That is what I knew.”

Harper continued: “I was not consulted, I was not asked to sign off on any such thing,” he said.

“Had I obviously been consulted, more importantly I would not have agreed, and it is obviously for those reasons that I accepted Mr. Wright’s resignation.”

In the days immediately following the revelation that Wright had given Duffy the money, Harper had staunchly stood by his chief of staff and his spokespeople insisted that Wright’s job was safe.

But Wright resigned Sunday, and Duffy quit the Conservative caucus last Thursday, after the details of their transaction began to emerge.

Timeline: Key dates in the evolution of the Senate expense-claim controversy

Back in Ottawa, the man at the centre of this controversy showed up at the Senate today, but refused to answer any questions, preferring to release a statement instead.

“Canadians deserve to know all of the facts,” Senator Duffy said in his first statement since his resignation from caucus last week.

“I am confident that when they do they will conclude, as Deloitte has already concluded, that my actions regarding expenses do not merit criticism.”

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While Duffy may be confident in the outcome of the investigation into his expenses, the opposition in the House is not. They say his case is going back to the same Senate committee that white-washed its first report on Duffy.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said no Canadian would consider the Senate committee an “independent” review.

“Does the minister not realize that that’s about as credible as Paul Martin asking Jean Chretien to investigate the sponsorship scandal?” Mulcair snapped in the Commons on Wednesday.

READ MORE: Release Senate documents, NDP urges Harper

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau flatly accused the government of obstructing a Senate audit.

“We know now that Conservatives on the Senate committee on internal economy used their majority to doctor the final report on Sen. Duffy’s expenses,” Trudeau charged. “Can anybody on that side of the House tell us who gave the order to whitewash the report on Sen. Duffy?”

Trudeau also demanded the government produce a copy of the $90,000 dollar cheque – if only to prove that it exists in the first place.

“If we had the cheque we would know if the PM’s right hand man did indeed write it, who it was made out to, was it held in trust until Sen. Duffy lived up to his side of the bargain. In fact, we would know whether there was a cheque at all,” he said during question period.

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“Perhaps the good senator was handed a $90,000 bag of cash in small bills. We don’t know. So will the government produce the cheque?”

Trudeau also alluded to an email from February that laid out the terms of the deal, suggesting it was in the possession of the Prime Minister’s Office and ought to be released.

In response to these allegations, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said the committee report was clear “that these expenses should not have been expensed.”

“No one in the government is disputing that fact. As I understand it, the report did in the end reflect the fact that repayment had been made.”

Global News has obtained new details about what transpired when the Senate committee on internal economy wrote up its report on Senator Mike Duffy’s expenses. A senior senate source says Conservative Senator Carolyn Stewart-Olsen moved a motion to revise the report, which ended up dropping tough language against Duffy.

Stewart-Olsen, who was once press secretary for Stephen Harper, declined to comment on what happened behind closed doors.

“Any views, interpretations, or misrepresentations of what went on during an in-camera meering are purely speculative,” Stewart-Olsen told Global News.

Back in Peru, Harper himself as “sorry,” “frustrated” and “extremely angry” about the whole mess, which has forced his government onto a defensive footing and threatens its carefully cultivated image as a pillar of accountability and sound financial management.

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Still, it will likely take more than Prime Ministerial anger to make this scandal go away.

READ MORE: Harper promises to tighten Senate expense rules

– With files from the Associated Press