Canada's Harper says 'very sorry' about expenses scandal

Wed May 22, 2013 4:44pm EDT
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By Mitra Taj

LIMA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Wednesday said for the first time that he was "very sorry" about a growing expenses scandal that threatens to derail his Conservative government after seven years in power.

Harper is under heavy pressure to explain how he could not have known that Nigel Wright, his chief of staff, had written a personal check for C$90,000 ($87,000) to a senator to help him repay expenses he had improperly claimed.

Wright resigned on Sunday amid howls of protest from opposition legislators who said the secret deal broke ethics rules and made a mockery of the Conservatives' promises to boost accountability in government. The senator, Mike Duffy, resigned from the Conservative caucus on Thursday.

"Obviously, I'm very sorry ... I'm sorry and feel a range of emotions. I'm sorry, frustrated and extremely angry about it," Harper said in his first comments to reporters since the scandal broke on May 14. Harper, who is on a trade mission, spoke at a joint news conference with Peruvian President Ollanta Humala.

Harper had prompted fresh protests from critics and commentators on Tuesday when he told a meeting of Conservative legislators that the affair was a distraction. He said at the time that he was "very upset" with legislators and with his own office but he stopped short of an apology.

The scandal has become one of the biggest crises to hit the Conservatives since they took power in early 2006, promising to clean up Ottawa after a series of ethical problems helped bring down the Liberal government.

Although the next election is not due until October 2015, polls show the Conservatives trailing the Liberals.

When Harper issued a statement on Sunday accepting Wright's resignation, he did not address the issue of whether he had known of or approved of his top aide's actions, but for the first time he was explicit on the issue in his news conference.   Continued...

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper shuffles papers after delivering a speech during a Conservative caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa May 21, 2013. REUTERS/Chris Wattie