OTTAWA – Conservative Senator Irving Gerstein refused to answer questions about his alleged role in the Senate expense scandal Thursday, the day after a police document claimed he tried to stop an audit into Mike Duffy’s expenses.
Gerstein made a brisk “no comment” to reporters as he left a Senate banking committee meeting he chairs. He was asked if or why he tried to get Deloitte to drop Duffy’s audit at the behest of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff Nigel Wright, according to allegations made in an 81-page RCMP document Wednesday.
None of the allegations have been proven and no charges have been laid.
Gerstein, who chairs the party’s fundraising arm the Conservative Fund, also refused to explain why he allegedly offered to use party funds to cover Duffy’s legal fees and expenses when the Prime Minister’s Office initially thought the amount Duffy owed was $32,000. It later rose to $90,000 and Gerstein refused to pay, but the party did cover $12,000 of Duffy’s legal fees.
And although he allegedly told police in a September interview that Wright told him he was going to “pay for Senator Duffy’s expenses personally,” Gerstein did not explain if or why he didn’t tell Harper about the plan.
“I’ve made all the statements I’m going to make,” he said as he put on his jacket, smiled, and left the Senate building.
RCMP Cpl. Greg Horton quotes a March 1 email from Wright to former PMO lawyer Benjamin Perrin. Duffy’s lawyer had asked Perrin for an update on whether Duffy would be removed from the Deloitte audit, which had been ordered by the Senate.
Wright replied he did not have an update, but said he asked Gerstein to try to influence the outcome of the audit.
“Today I asked Sen. Gerstein to actually work through senior contacts at Deloitte and with Sen. (Marjory) LeBreton,” Wright wrote to Perrin.
“The outcome we are pushing for is for Deloitte to report publicly that IF Kanata (Ont.) were the primary residence then the amount owing would be the $90,000 figure and that since Sen. Duffy has committed to repay this amount then Deloitte’s work in determining the primary residence is no longer needed.”
Gerstein told RCMP investigators in a Sept. 16 interview that Wright told him Duffy “had a liability” of approximately $30,000 in residency fees and $12,000 in legal fees, and that Wright suggested the Conservative Fund pay “this obligation.”
“He (Senator Gerstein) stated that it is something he would consider. The reason that he wanted to consider it was because his role as Chair of the fund is specifically to bring revenue to the party. Their relationship with their donors and the integrity of the fund is of critical importance,” the RCMP document says.
Gerstein did not have a problem with the legal fees but “did have concerns about the optics of paying the $30,000 relating to expense claims,” it says.
“He raised the issue of whether Senator Duffy would keep such a payment confidential.”
When Gerstein learned Duffy owed more than $90,000, “he was emphatic that there would be no consideration to repay on behalf of Senator Duffy,” says the document.
Gerstein told an audience at the Conservative convention earlier this month that he made it “absolutely clear” to Wright the fund would not cover Duffy’s expenses.
“I made it absolutely clear to Nigel Wright that the Conservative Fund Canada would not pay for Senator Duffy’s disputed expenses, and it never did,” Gerstein said.
“At the request of Nigel Wright, the fund did agree to pay legal fees limited to a maximum of $12,000 plus HST, because at the time Senator Duffy was a member of the Conservative caucus and as you know the funds sometimes assist caucus members with their legal expenses as do other parties.”
Wright said in a statement Wednesday he acted within the scope of his duties and he is confident his actions were lawful.
The RCMP documents quote a May 14 email Wright wrote saying the prime minister knew, “in broad terms only, that I personally assisted Duffy when I was getting him to agree to repay the expenses.”
Harper insists he did not know Wright paid Duffy’s expenses and the RCMP said there is no evidence to suggest Harper “was personally involved in the minutiae of those matters.”
With files from The Canadian Press
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