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Could have accepted chief of staff's resignation sooner, Harper admits

Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledged for the first time Thursday that “perhaps” he could have responded more quickly to the news that his trusted chief of staff had footed the $90,000 bill for Sen. Mike Duffy’s disallowed housing expenses.

Harper conceded that he could have accepted the resignation of former right-hand man Nigel Wright earlier than he ultimately did — four days after Harper and the rest of Canada learned the stunning news about the personal cheque Wright wrote the senator.

Harper has insisted that he was neither informed nor consulted about the arrangement, but until now, he has never explained why the Prime Minister’s Office stood so staunchly by Wright in the days that immediately followed the stunning revelation.

“He should have told me earlier; that’s why I accepted his resignation,” Harper said. “Upon reflection, should I have reached that conclusion earlier? Perhaps.”

Harper made the comments at a news conference in Cali, Colombia, where he spent the day meeting with Latin American leaders.

He said he knows of no formal deal between Wright and Duffy beyond the terms that have already been made public.

“It’s been very clear. Mr. Wright gave Mr. Duffy money so that what he felt was the right thing should be done, and Mr. Duffy should repay the money he owes taxpayers. Obviously Mr. Wright will be answering to the ethics commissioner on the propriety of those actions.”

Harper was also asked whether Duffy should resign his Senate seat. That’s up to the Senate, he said.

The scandal — allegations of interference by the PMO into a review of Duffy’s dubious expenses — grew Thursday as the Conservative in charge of the probe admitted he got advice from Harper’s team during the process.

Sen. David Tkachuk, one of a three-member special sub-committee studying Duffy’s housing expenses, told Maclean’s magazine that he spoke to people in Harper’s office — including Wright — about the issue.

Tkachuk and other Conservatives on the larger internal economy committee are facing allegations that they whitewashed a report into Duffy’s expenses.

Harper brushed questions about his office’s interference aside.

“Senator Tkachuk said he consulted widely on the committee’s mandate and the committee’s findings, including with members of the opposition. He also says he and his committee were directed by no one, that they took their own decision,” Harper said.

He also suggested there was no need for an inquiry, as the Liberals have urged.

“I think the government has taken the absolutely appropriate actions under the circumstances. We’ve always said that when these kinds of things occur, we will take action to deal with them and hold people accountable. That’s what we’ve done,” Harper said.

Also Thursday, Senate Speaker Noel Kinsella said the RCMP’s sensitive and international investigations unit is examining the claims of senators Duffy, Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau.

Duffy repaid $90,000 in disallowed living expenses with the help of a secret cheque from Wright. After repaying the money, Duffy stopped co-operating with a team of independent auditors.

Wright has since resigned, and Duffy has left the Conservative caucus.

“(Wright) didn’t tell me to do anything, really. We discussed Mike and the situation that he was in. I mean, the prime minister’s office was very concerned about this. They don’t like this scandal going on. It was hurting us politically, ” Tkachuk told Maclean’s.

“And I didn’t like it going on, but he never said, he never told me to whitewash anything or to let him off the hook or anything like that. I’m responsible for what goes in that report.”

Tkachuk was also asked if advice from the Prime Minister’s Office ended up impacting how the report was written.

“It’s hard for me to say,” he replied. “Only because I asked for advice from many, many people, so it’s all in the report.”

The Saskatchewan senator also acknowledged that he had given Duffy a head’s up that independent auditors had found improper expense claims made by Duffy while he was vacationing in Florida.

“This not a police investigation. This is an audit. I’m the chairman of the audit committee. I want the truth,” Tkachuk said.

Those statements spurred the Liberals in the Senate to call for Tkachuk to reconsider his position as chairman of the internal economy committee.

“It’s not a court of law but you’re passing judgment on a situation,” said Liberal Senate leader James Cowan.

“To be discussing what might or might not go on with people outside that, this is supposed to be an in camera discussion and I just don’t think it’s appropriate at all.”

Duffy’s expenses are headed back to the same committee for another review. The Senate, meanwhile, has agreed to provide the RCMP with documents related to its travel and expenses policies.

Duffy spoke out Thursday for the first time since the scandal erupted last week, insisting that he looks forward to a complete airing of all the facts and dismissing suggestions he should resign his Senate seat.

Conservative Senate leader Marjory LeBreton said she didn’t see anything wrong with Tkachuk discussing the Duffy review with the PMO.

“…..Obviously the news stories about Brazeau and Harb were circulating around the Hill, so we obviously talk to each other,” LeBreton said.

“There is nothing wrong with that.”

The report into Duffy’s expenses was softened on the direction of Tkachuk and Sen. Carolyn Stewart Olsen, Harper’s former press secretary. Sections that referred to the clarity of Senate rules on primary and secondary residences were deleted, but left in the reports on Harb and Brazeau.

The Liberals are calling on the Conservative government to go public with any documents they might have related to the arrangement between Wright and Duffy.

Heritage Minister James Moore repeated Thursday in the Commons that there are no documents whatsoever relating to that deal.

With files from Heather Scoffield in Cali, Colombia