OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s main opposition party on Tuesday urged the federal police to probe whether members of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office were involved in a bribery and expenses scandal that has engulfed the ruling Conservatives.
The scandal, which first erupted in 2013, is threatening to dominate the campaign ahead of an Oct. 19 election where the right-of-center Conservatives are bidding to pull off a rare fourth consecutive victory.
The official opposition New Democrats said revelations from the trial of Senator Mike Duffy, an ex-Harper ally charged with bribery and fraud in relation to C$90,000 ($69,000) of expenses he claimed, show far more top aides than initially thought were involved in the bid to quell the scandal.
“The question of whether staff in the Prime Minister’s office were engaged in criminal acts has become a major issue of public interest as Canadians prepare to go to the polls,” New Democrat ethics spokesman Charlie Angus said in a letter to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
Most recent polls show the left-leaning New Democrats have a slight lead in public support.
Harper’s then chief of staff Nigel Wright secretly wrote a C$90,000 personal check to enable Duffy to repay the expenses and minimize the fall-out from the scandal. Wright left his job in May 2013 when the check became public.
Harper insists that only Wright and Duffy knew about the secret deal. But the trial heard evidence on Tuesday that several other aides were aware, including Ray Novak, Harper’s current chief of staff.
Conservative campaign spokespeople did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Angus also asked the RCMP whether they would be charging Wright. The RCMP did investigate his involvement, but decided not to bring charges against him.
The affair, with its talk of backroom deals and secret payments, could damage a Conservative Party that came to power in 2006 vowing to clean up politics.
“It was Mr. Duffy’s responsibility to repay his expenses. Mr. Duffy did not do so (and) Mr. Wright permitted him not to do so,” Harper said on Tuesday. “These are the individuals I consider responsible and they are being held fully accountable for their actions.”
The National Post newspaper, which usually supports the Conservatives, said in an editorial on Tuesday that Wright’s actions showed “the extent of the institutional rot” which had spread through the government.
Additional reporting by Leah Schnurr and David Ljunggren; Editing by Josephine Mason and James Dalgleish