May 21, 2013 / 2:38 PM / in 5 years

Canadian PM says growing expenses scandal a distraction

OTTAWA, May 21 (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper dismissed a mushrooming expenses scandal in the Senate as a distraction on Tuesday and urged his Conservative legislators to focus on the economy.

But Harper, facing the biggest crisis since he won power in early 2006 with promises to clean up government, also said he was “very upset” by the behavior of some parliamentarians and officials in his office.

Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, resigned on Sunday after secretly writing a check from his own bank account for C$90,000 ($88,000) to enable Senator Mike Duffy to repay housing allowances that he should not have claimed.

So far, three senators have stepped down to sit as independents after allegations that they claimed expenses to which they were not entitled.

Conservative legislators and their supporters fear the scandal will damage the party’s reputation. Conservative Senator Jacques Demers, visibly angry, told reporters before Harper spoke on Tuesday that he would quit unless he got full answers to what had happened.

Harper told a meeting of his Conservative caucus that the party should continue to focus on the economy, which the government sees as its strongest suit. Helped by tax cuts and spending hikes, Canada escaped the recession better than most other countries although the recovery has faltered recently.

“We have an active and important agenda on the issues that matter to hard-working Canadian families ... when distractions arise, as they inevitably will, we will deal with them firmly. But we cannot lose sight of our top priority,” he said.

Critics say the large check from Wright to Duffy broke ethics rules that prevent senators from taking gifts.

Duffy quit the Conservative caucus last Thursday. Fellow Conservative senator Pamela Wallin, whose expenses are also being probed, followed suit on Friday. A third senator, also embroiled in the expenses scandal, quit in February after he was charged with assault.

Harper did not take questions from reporters. Later on Tuesday he was due to fly to Peru and Colombia on a previously scheduled trip.

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