Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Protecting the PMO: When Harper Allowed Probe into His Own Office

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Protecting the PMO: When Harper Allowed Probe into His Own Office

Article excerpt

The time Harper allowed a probe of own office

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OTTAWA - Here's the scenario: Prime Minister Stephen Harper finds himself besieged with questions about whether he knew of unethical -- possibly even criminal -- activity that transpired in the past and failed to take action.

Documents are central to the controversy, as is the question of how much information he was provided by his staff. Court affidavits are picked apart by reporters. Calls for an inquiry echo throughout question period.

"The current prime minister owes it to the institution he represents to shed some light on this issue," says the Liberal leader.

But here's the thing -- Harper does call an inquiry that examines the inner workings of his own office, and even hosts a 30-minute news conference to answer questions about the brewing scandal and reams of court documents.

Alternate universe?

No, it's what happened in 2008, when German businessman Karlheinz Schreiber alleged he struck a deal with former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney to do defence lobbying work.

Mulroney denied that the deal was struck while he was still in office, but admitted to receiving $225,000 in cash payments.

Harper was drawn in when court documents filed in 2007 showed Schreiber had written letters to Harper that spelled out his allegations against Mulroney. Schreiber also alleged that Mulroney had come to the businessman's defence during a visit to Harper's summer home in 2006, which Harper and Mulroney also denied.

"Obviously, I'm taking this action to protect the position of the Prime Minister's Office," Harper told the news conference that day in announcing the inquiry. "It's important that we have the facts."

Days later, the RCMP said they were also investigating the Schreiber-Mulroney affair. No charges were ever laid.

Fast-forward to 2013, and witness Harper's very different approach to a scandal that this time has engulfed his closest staff and political allies.

Harper has deflected calls for an inquiry into an alleged deal struck inside his office to reimburse Sen. Mike Duffy's contested living expenses. Duffy and Harper's former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, face RCMP allegations of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. No charges have been laid.

Unlike in 2008, Harper has not held a news conference to deal exclusively with the scandal.

Keith Beardsley, a former aide to Harper who worked inside the office at the time of the Schreiber controversy, said pains were taken to quickly retrieve documents and get to the bottom of what happened, thereby taking some of the sting out of the story.

Back then, though, the Conservatives had only a minority government, he added.

"I think at this point, they've gone into the bunker and they're not coming out if they can help it," Beardsley said.

"It was much more proactive before, and right now it seems to be entirely reactive. They sit and wait for something to happen, and then they decide how they're going to handle it once they see it."

In the Mulroney-Schreiber affair, there was no evidence that Harper had actually seen or knew about Schreiber's letters and their content. The inquiry uncovered some weaknesses in how the Prime Minister's Office and Privy Council Office exchanged information.

Harper's approach to protecting the integrity of the PMO now appears to be the polar opposite of 2007, said NDP MP Pat Martin, the party's main critic at the time. …

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