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Updated: Tue, 26 Nov 2013 05:01:18 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Cleanup attempt on Wright-Duffy deal raises more questions



Prime Minister Stephen Harper's director of communications Jason MacDonald speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013. Sean Kilpatrick, Canadian Press

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's director of communications Jason MacDonald speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013. Sean Kilpatrick, Canadian Press

The prime minister's director of communications hit the talk-show circuit this weekend to explain Stephen Harper's handling of the Wright-Duffy affair, but may have raised more questions about how much Harper knew and what he did with that knowledge.

In question period Monday in the House of Commons, Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair pounced on the fact that Jason MacDonald referred to "the coverup that we now know took place" when he spoke to media interviewers about the repayment of Senator Mike Duffy's inappropriate expenses.

Why has the prime minister not dismissed everyone in his office involved in the coverup, demanded Mulcair.

Speaking for the prime minister, who was not in the House, Harper's parliamentary secretary Paul Calandra pointed out, as he did several times during question period, that only Nigel Wright, the prime minister's former chief of staff, and Duffy are the focus of the RCMP investigation of the repayment of Duffy's expenses.

Both Wright and Duffy are being scrutinized by the RCMP for possible criminal charges because Wright personally paid Duffy's expenses in exchange for certain conditions demanded by Duffy.

Jason MacDonald talked to CTV, Global and CBC Radio's The House on Saturday and Sunday about an email exchange detailed in documents the RCMP released to an Ottawa court last week.

The emails seem to relate to an early attempt by Wright to arrange for the Conservative Party to repay $32,000 of Senator Mike Duffy's inappropriate expenses as well as his legal fees.

In an email dated Feb. 22, Wright contacted Benjamin Perrin, Harper's legal counsel, as well as others in the PMO, and referred to "point three" in a legal agreement that had been worked out between Duffy and the Prime Minister's Office. Wright, as chief of staff, was the head of the PMO.

Keeping Duffy 'whole'

"Point three" was a demand of Duffy's, communicated through his lawyer, that "there be an arrangement to keep him [Duffy] whole on the repayment. His legal fees will also be reimbursed." Keeping Duffy "whole" is thought to mean he wouldn't be personally out of pocket over the reimbursement of his expenses.

In the same email, Wright said, "I do want to speak to the PM before everything is considered final." The RCMP documents relate that less than an hour later, Wright followed up with another email, saying, "We are good to go with the PM."

Once it became known that Duffy's ill-claimed expenses were actually $90,000, the Conservative Party backed out, and Wright stepped in to cover the debt out of his own resources.

MacDonald told several interviewers over the weekend, that "good to go" meant the prime minister was merely agreeing Duffy must pay his own expenses. Asked why the prime minister would need to approve such an obvious question, MacDonald explained it was because Duffy didn't want to co-operate, and Harper's word was necessary to compel him to pay up.

Senator Gerstein's role

MacDonald was also asked if the prime minister knew Senator Irving Gerstein, the Conservative Party's official fundraiser, approached the private accounting firm Deloitte to (unsuccessfully) persuade the auditors to halt their examination of Duffy's expenses.

MacDonald said the prime minister had no knowledge of Gerstein's intervention and also didn't know Gerstein was willing to have the Conservative Party repay Duffy's expenses as long as the amount was $32,000 and no more.

Harper has confirmed the party paid Duffy's $13,000 lawyer's bill, but has never explained what the legal work was for.

When MacDonald was asked why Gerstein still holds the position of party fundraiser, he didn't directly answer. In the House of Commons Monday, Mulcair also asked why Gerstein has not been evicted from the Conservative caucus.

To many of the questions, Calandra kept referring to an incident 17 years ago when Mulcair, then a provincial Liberal MNA in Quebec, was offered a possible bribe by the then mayor of Laval who is now facing charges. Mulcair has said he didn't know what the envelope was, and didn't report it to the police until 2011.

At one point, Calandra intoned "the poor NDP" who had to choose a leader whom he described as a "corrupt Liberal."

The NDP at times heckled Calandra with cries of "coverup, coverup, criminal activity."

Calandra did not provide an explanation why other people in the PMO, other than Wright, have not also been dismissed, given the RCMP documents make it clear they knew of the deal to have Wright pay off Duffy.   

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