OTTAWA -- Opposition parties aren't buying the Harper government's explanation for the sudden discovery of a cache of emails that could shed more light on the Senate expenses scandal and attempted coverup.
The Privy Council Office, the bureaucracy that supports the Prime Minister's Office, is taking the blame for mistakenly telling the RCMP emails belonging to former PMO legal counsel Benjamin Perrin were deleted when he left the government's employ last March.
But New Democrats and Liberals suspect the PMO was sitting on the emails and is now throwing bureaucrats under the bus. They question whether anyone can trust that Perrin's emails haven't been tampered with to remove damaging information.
"What we're talking about is the operating protocol of the Prime Minister's Office, which is to deny until they get caught and then change their story," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said in the Commons.
"How can Canadians be assured of the integrity of any of this evidence when the Conservative government has been withholding it for three months?"
Liberal House leader Dominic LeBlanc said the emails have surfaced now only because the RCMP has dug deep enough that Prime Minister Stephen Harper "has no other choice but to confess the truth."
"It looks a bit like the Rob Ford crisis-management strategy," LeBlanc said, referring to the Toronto mayor's abrupt confession he smoked crack cocaine after months of vehement denials.
Harper was not in the Commons Monday. Pierre Poilievre, minister responsible for democratic reform, fielded the opposition questions by repeatedly citing passages from a PCO letter to the RCMP, released late Sunday.
The letter, from Isabelle Mondou, assistant secretary to the cabinet, says it twice advised the PMO in September that, following standard practice, Perrin's emails were deleted when he left the government's employ last March to teach law at the University of British Columbia.
However, when asked again last week by PMO about Perrin's emails, PCO discovered on Friday they had, in fact, been preserved due to his involvement in an unrelated legal matter. In Sunday's letter, Mondou apologized for the error and promised to hand them over immediately.
Previously disclosed emails obtained from other PM staffers and filed in court by the RCMP have shown Perrin was intimately involved in negotiating a deal to get Sen. Mike Duffy to repay his disallowed living expenses. Perrin has hired legal counsel and won't comment.
Duffy agreed only on condition he would be reimbursed for the full amount plus his legal fees, that an audit of his expenses would be halted and a Senate report softened to remove any criticism of his conduct. Duffy also wanted the government to ensure there would be no question he was entitled to sit as a senator for Prince Edward Island, although he lived primarily in Ottawa.
The Conservative party initially agreed to reimburse Duffy when the tab was thought to be $32,000, but the party balked when the bill reached $90,000. In the end, Harper's chief of staff, Nigel Wright, personally gave Duffy the $90,000.
Duffy and Wright are under investigation by the RCMP amid allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. No charges have been laid.
Duffy has refused to comment on the latest allegations, while Wright has said he acted within the scope of his job as chief of staff and is confident his actions were legal.
Perrin and Duffy's lawyer, Janice Payne, last week became the subject of a complaint filed by a University of Ottawa law professor with the Ontario and B.C. law societies. Amir Attaran claims the duo "violated the ethics of the profession" by helping to craft an illegal deal between Wright and Duffy.
Harper insists he knew nothing of the deal with Duffy until May 15, when news of Wright's payment leaked in the media.
NDP critic Charlie Angus said the PCO letter seems to be a case of top bureaucrats "throwing themselves under the bus willingly to deflect attention from the prime minister's handling of this.
"I wonder now how far the rot goes. Does it go right from the Prime Minister's Office into the Privy Council, because something's wrong here," Angus said.
The Senate has co-operated with the Mounties' request for all emails from four senators implicated in the alleged deal to pay off Duffy's expenses and whitewash a report on the matter.
-- The Canadian Press