Canada's PM defends aide at heart of growing expenses scandal

Fri May 17, 2013 1:19pm EDT
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By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended on Friday a top aide who is at the center of an expenses scandal that is becoming one of the biggest crises to hit the governing Conservatives since they took office in 2006.

Opposition parties want an inquiry into why Nigel Wright, Harper's chief of staff, secretly gave a personal check for C$90,000 ($88,000) to a senator who could not afford to repay housing allowances he had claimed improperly.

Critics said the deal made a mockery of the government's claims it would boost accountability in Ottawa. They also said it broke ethics rules preventing senators from accepting gifts.

"Mr. Wright has the full confidence of the prime minister ... Mr. Wright is staying on," Harper's chief spokesman, Andrew MacDougall, told reporters on Friday.

The senator, Mike Duffy, resigned from the Conservatives on Thursday and will sit as an independent.

The affair has the potential to damage Harper badly. Even before the scandal broke, polls showed his party trailing the opposition Liberals. The next election is not due until October 2015 and the next two years could prove painful unless he deals with the crisis.

"I think the prime minister really needs to understand that this is about as serious an ethical breach as it gets and he needs to take some action here," said Charlie Angus, ethics critic for the official opposition New Democrats.

"He can't keep Nigel Wright in his position and pretend that this is going to go away... This is really about the prime minister's personal credibility," Angus told Reuters.   Continued...

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during a business round table at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, May 16, 2013. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid