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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian police laid a raft of criminal charges on Thursday against a member of the country's Senate who was once a close political ally of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The 31 charges against Senator Mike Duffy are the latest development in a long-running scandal that has hurt support for Harper's right-leaning Conservative government ahead of an election scheduled for October 2015.
Harper, who took power in 2006 promising to increase accountability, came under attack from opposition parties last year after it emerged that his chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had secretly paid Duffy a check for C$90,000 ($83,330) to cover expenses.
The Senate, the appointed upper house of Canada's parliament, later found that Duffy had claimed the expenses improperly.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police Assistant Commissioner Gilles Michaud said Duffy is suspected of corruptly obtaining, or trying to obtain, the C$90,000 from Wright.
"Mr. Duffy has been charged with one count each of bribery of a judicial officer, frauds on the government and breach of trust," Michaud told reporters. "Today's charges are the result of a careful examination of the facts."
The majority of the Mounties' charges against Duffy relate to living and travel expenses that he allegedly claimed even though he was not entitled to do so.
Harper has always insisted he knew nothing about the check and would not have approved it.
"Those who break the rules must suffer the consequences. The conduct described in the numerous charges against Mr. Duffy is disgraceful," said chief Harper spokesman Jason MacDonald, who declined to comment further.
Wright quit his job in Harper's office in May 2013, a few days after the news broke. In November, the Senate voted to suspend Duffy and two other Conservative senators for claiming expenses they had not been entitled to.
Duffy is a former high-profile television reporter who had proved to be a popular draw at Conservative fund-raising events. Harper appointed him to the Senate in December 2008.
In April this year, the Mounties said they had dropped a separate corruption investigation into Wright's activities.
Duffy's lawyer, Donald Bayne, said Thursday's charges raise serious questions.
"I am sure that I am not the only Canadian who will now wonder openly, how what was not a crime or bribe when Nigel Wright paid it on his own initiative, became however mysteriously, a crime or bribe when received by Senator Duffy," he said in a statement.
Support for the Conservatives slipped after the scandal broke and polls continue to suggest the opposition Liberals are likely to win the most seats in the House of Commons, the elected lower chamber of parliament, in the 2015 election.
"This is yet another example of the secrecy and alleged corruption involving the Harper Conservatives," said Liberal legislator Marc Garneau.
Duffy is next due in court on Sept. 16, the day after the House of Commons resumes sitting.
Editing by Peter Galloway and James Dalgleish