Chair of Senate Standing Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce Irving Gerstein is seen before committee Wednesday Nov. 20, 2013 in Ottawa. Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press
A Conservative senator facing questions about his role in an audit into Mike Duffy's expenses refused a Liberal request Wednesday that he step down as chair of the Senate's banking committee.
Irving Gerstein declined to give up his role as the committee's chair after Liberal Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette argued he should step down. Gerstein, in his role as chair, ruled Hervieux-Payette's motion out of order.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Gerstein seems to continue to have the confidence of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, despite questions about Gerstein's role in Duffy's audit.
An auditor with Deloitte, which performed the forensic investigation on Duffy's $90,000 in questionable expenses, confirmed last week that Michael Runia, one of the firm's executives, called him to ask how much Duffy owed.
RCMP documents allege Gerstein contacted Runia about the Duffy audit. Gary Timm, the auditor who Runia phoned, said he didn't give Runia any information and ended the call as quickly as possible.
Runia is the Conservative Party's auditor. Gerstein is the party's lead fundraiser.
Confidence in Gerstein
In question period, Trudeau asked why Harper maintains confidence in Gerstein.
"The prime minister's head of fundraising offered Conservative donor money to a sitting legislator. So, why does Senator Irving Gerstein still enjoy the complete confidence of the prime minister?" he asked.
Harper said Gerstein denies offering party money to Duffy.
"The RCMP itself have made very clear who is under investigation and that the Prime Minister's Office and the government continue to fully assist," he said.
An RCMP affidavit, however, says Gerstein told investigators that he was considering using the Conservative Fund to pay Duffy's questionable expenses, expenses that Nigel Wright, Harper's former chief of staff, eventually paid.
Gerstein has been repeatedly asked by reporters about his role and has refused to comment. He has not denied the information contained in the RCMP affidavit.
Senators will vote at 5:30 p.m. ET on whether to force the internal economy committee to hear from Runia. Last week, the committee voted not to debate a motion to call Runia and Gerstein.
Harper's first QP this week
The controversy over emails from a former lawyer in the Prime Minister's Office regarding the Senate scandal continued as MPs emerged from weekly caucus meetings.
MPs are usually fired up once they hit Wednesday question period at 2:15 p.m. following a morning of meeting with colleagues and hearing from their respective party leaders.
Wednesday was also Harper's first appearance in question period this week.
Over the weekend it was revealed the Prime Minister's Office still had emails, thought to have been deleted, sent by former PMO lawyer Benjamin Perrin.
RCMP documents show that police believe Perrin knew about the deal between Wright and Duffy.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair cited the government's rules for preserving records and compared it to a statement by the Privy Council Office, the arm of the civil service that works for the prime minister, that it routinely deletes the email accounts of departing employees.
"The Prime Minister's Office claims that it is, quote, 'operating protocol' for emails to be routinely deleted when staff leave. But the same guidelines Conservatives are citing actually say this: that under the law, emails cannot be deleted if they contain information needed to account for the activities of government. Why was the law broken?" Mulcair said.
Harper laid the blame at Perrin's feet because the rules say departing employees need to make sure records are available to others once they leave.
"It is of course the responsibility of all employees to follow the applicable rules and records are retained by the bureaucracy," Harper said.
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