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Harper denies knowing about cheque to Duffy

Finally breaks silence about Senate-expenses controversy

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LIMA, Peru -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper insisted Thursday he did not know about -- nor was asked to sign off on -- the arrangement that saw his chief of staff cut a personal cheque for $90,000 to Sen. Mike Duffy.

Harper, currently on a trade mission in South America, took questions on the Senate scandal for the first time since news emerged about the controversial cheque written by his former right-hand man.

I did not know... (and) I was not consulted," Harper said, the Peruvian president standing at his side. "I was not asked to sign off on any such thing, and had I been consulted or known, I would not have agreed with it, and it is obviously for those reasons that I accepted Mr. Wright's resignation."

Harper said he learned about the arrangement through the media: "I immediately asked that that information be released publicly," he said.

He also said he's "sorry," "frustrated" and "extremely angry" about the mess, which has engulfed his government and threatens its carefully crafted image as a pillar of accountability and sound financial management.

'I did not know... (and) I was not consulted' -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper

The payment allowed Duffy to stop co-operating with an external audit of his expenses -- an audit that has since been referred back to the same Senate committee that has already reviewed its incomplete findings.

It deleted a specific reference to his failure to co-operate with auditors before releasing its report to the public.

The dropped paragraph details how the firm Deloitte was rebuffed when it asked Duffy again to provide additional documents, and for a meeting with his lawyer. Another section of the report, describing the language that defines a primary or secondary residence as "unambiguous," was also deleted -- but it remained in the reports tabled on two other senators, Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau.

The federal ethics commissioner is probing the affair.

"Obviously I am very sorry that this has occurred. I am not only sorry, I've been through the range of emotions. I'm sorry, I'm frustrated, I'm extremely angry about it," Harper said.

"But that is the reality and I think we've dealt with it promptly."

Harper said when he learned Duffy had repaid the expenses, he assumed it had been from the senator's own pocket. "That's how it should have been," Harper said. "I know Mr. Wright assisted him, or did this for him, because he wanted to see the taxpayers reimbursed."

Wright resigned Sunday and Duffy quit the Tory caucus last week after details of the transaction emerged.

Duffy issued a public statement Wednesday in which he welcomed the re-examination of his expenses.

"Canadians deserve to know all of the facts," Duffy said. "I am confident that when they do they will conclude, as Deloitte has already concluded, that my actions regarding expenses do not merit criticism."

But the opposition suggested both Harper and Duffy remain complicit in a coverup, and urged the government to disclose all documents related to the transaction.

"Be clear, be forthright, stop hiding out in the Andes, get back up here, tell people what actually happened," said NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.

"There is something that doesn't wash in this whole story. Canadians understand that, they get that."

The Tories insist there is no paper trail, that no documents were drawn up to detail Wright's payment to Duffy.

In that case, produce a copy of the cancelled cheque, said Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. "If we had the cheque we would know if the PM's right-hand man did indeed write it, who it was made out to, was it held in trust until Sen. Duffy lived up to his side of the bargain," Trudeau said.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 23, 2013 A4

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