OTTAWA — Opposition parties aren’t buying the Harper government’s explanation for the sudden discovery of a cache of emails that could shed more light on the Senate expenses scandal and attempted cover-up.
The Privy Council Office, the bureaucracy that supports the Prime Minister’s Office, is taking the blame for mistakenly telling the RCMP that emails belonging to former PMO legal counsel Benjamin Perrin were deleted when he left the government’s employ last March.
But New Democrats and Liberals suspect the PMO was sitting on the emails and is now throwing bureaucrats under the bus. And they’re questioning whether anyone can trust that Perrin’s emails haven’t been tampered with to remove damaging information.
“What we’re talking about is the operating protocol of the Prime Minister’s Office, which is to deny until they get caught and then change their story,” NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said in the Commons.
“How can Canadians be assured of the integrity of any of this evidence when the Conservative government has been withholding it for three months?”
Liberal House leader Dominic LeBlanc suggested the emails have surfaced now only because the RCMP has dug deep enough that Prime Minister Stephen Harper “has no other choice but to confess the truth.”
“It looks a bit like the Rob Ford crisis management strategy,” LeBlanc said, referring to the Toronto mayor’s abrupt confession that he smoked crack cocaine after months of vehement denials.
Harper was not in the Commons on Monday.
Pierre Poilievre, minister responsible for democratic reform, fielded the opposition questions by repeatedly citing passages from a PCO letter to the RCMP, released late Sunday.
The letter, from Isabelle Mondou, assistant secretary to the cabinet, says that it twice advised the PMO in September that, following standard practice, Perrin’s emails were deleted when he left the government’s employ last March to teach law at the University of British Columbia.
However, when asked again last week by PMO about Perrin’s emails, PCO discovered on Friday that they had, in fact, been preserved due to his involvement in an unrelated legal matter. In Sunday’s letter, Mondou apologized for the error and promised to hand them over immediately.
Previously disclosed emails obtained from other PM staffers and filed in court by the RCMP, have shown Perrin was intimately involved in negotiating a deal to get Sen. Mike Duffy to repay his disallowed living expenses.
Perrin has engaged legal counsel and has declined all comment.
Duffy agreed only on condition that he would be reimbursed for the full amount plus his legal fees, that an audit of his expenses would be halted and a Senate report softened to remove any criticism of his conduct. Duffy also wanted the government to ensure there would be no question he was entitled to sit as a senator for Prince Edward Island, although he lived primarily in Ottawa.
The Conservative party initially agreed to reimburse Duffy when the tab was thought to be about $32,000, but the party balked when the bill reached $90,000. In the end, Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, personally gave Duffy the $90,000.
Duffy and Wright are now under investigation by the RCMP amid allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. No charges have been laid.
Duffy has refused to comment on the latest allegations, while Wright has maintained he acted within the scope of his position as chief of staff and remains confident his actions were legal.
Perrin and Duffy’s lawyer, Janice Payne, last week became the subject of a complaint filed last week by a University of Ottawa law professor with the Ontario and B.C. law societies. Amir Attaran claims the duo “violated the ethics of the profession” by helping to craft an illegal deal between Wright and Duffy.
Harper insists he knew nothing of the deal with Duffy until May 15, when news of Wright’s payment leaked in the media.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said the PCO letter seems to be a case of top bureaucrats “throwing themselves under the bus willingly to deflect attention from the prime minister’s handling of this.” And he said that raises the question whether the PCO is acting in a neutral manner.
“I wonder now how far the rot goes. Does it go right from the Prime Minister’s Office into the Privy Council, because something’s wrong here,” Angus said.
While the RCMP has had trouble getting hold of Perrin’s emails, the Senate has been fully co-operating with the Mounties’ request for all emails from four senators implicated in the alleged deal to pay off Duffy’s expenses and whitewash a report on the matter.
The RCMP last month obtained a court order for the emails but there was a possibility the Senate could have refused to provide them, claiming parliamentary privilege.
However, Noel Kinsella, Speaker of the Senate, said Monday he’s decided parliamentary privilege should not be used as “a shield” to stymie a police investigation. Senate officials are working with the RCMP to provide the emails within 30 days of the Nov. 20 court order, he added.
The RCMP wants to see the emails sent and received by Duffy, Marjory LeBreton, former government leader in the Senate, and two key members of the Senate’s internal economy committee which oversaw the audit into Duffy’s expenses: former committee chair David Tkachuk and Carolyn Stewart Olsen.
With the Senate’s reputation in tatters after a full year of damaging revelations in the expenses scandal, Kinsella took the unprecedented step of holding an hour-long news conference in the red chamber, which does not sit on Mondays.
He gave reporters a history lesson on the role the Senate plays as the chamber of sober second thought and a regional counterbalance to representation by population in the House of Commons.
Kinsella last week was named chair of the Senate’s internal economy committee, which oversaw the independent audit of Duffy’s expenses, as well as those of disgraced senators Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb.
The committee last week heard from three Deloitte auditors, who insisted their findings on Duffy were not affected by interference from a Deloitte partner, Michael Runia. Emails filed by the RCMP in court have shown that Wright got Senator Irving Gerstein to contact Runia in a bid to shape the findings of the Duffy audit.
The committee’s Conservative majority concluded it wasn’t necessary to hear directly from either Gerstein or Runia. However, Liberal senators will try Tuesday, through a formal motion, to persuade the committee to reconsider and call Runia as a witness.