Canadian senator charged over cheque from PM's chief of staff
Criminal case opened against Mike Duffy over payment from PM's chief of staff
Canadian police have laid a raft of criminal charges against a member of the country's Senate who was once a close political ally of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The 31 charges laid against Senator Mike Duffy on Thursday are the latest development in a long-running scandal that has hurt support for Harper's right-leaning Conservative government ahead of an election scheduled for October 2015.
Harper, who took power in 2006 promising to increase accountability, came under attack from opposition parties last year after it emerged that his wealthy chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had secretly paid Duffy a cheque for C$90,000 (HK$649,000) to cover expenses that Duffy had agreed to repay.
The Senate, the appointed upper house of Canada's Parliament, ruled Duffy had claimed the expenses improperly.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police assistant commissioner Gilles Michaud said Duffy was suspected of corruptly obtaining, or trying to obtain, the C$90,000 from Wright.
"Mr Duffy has been charged with one count each of bribery of a judicial officer, frauds on the government and breach of trust," Michaud said. "Today's charges are the result of a careful examination of the facts."
The majority of the Mounties' charges against Duffy relate to living and travel expenses that he allegedly claimed even though he was not entitled to do so.
Harper has always insisted he knew nothing about the cheque and would not have approved it.
"Those who break the rules must suffer the consequences. The conduct described in the numerous charges against Mr Duffy is disgraceful," said chief Harper spokesman Jason MacDonald.
Wright quit his job in Harper's office in May 2013, a few days after the news broke. In November, the Senate voted to suspend Duffy and two other Conservative senators for claiming expenses they had not been entitled to.
Duffy is a former high-profile television reporter who had proved to be a popular draw at Conservative fundraising events. Harper appointed him to the Senate in December 2008.
In April, the RCMP said they had dropped a separate corruption investigation into Wright's activities.
Duffy's lawyer, Donald Bayne, said Thursday's charges raised serious questions.
"I am sure that I am not the only Canadian who will now wonder openly how what was not a crime or bribe when Nigel Wright paid it on his own initiative became, however mysteriously, a crime or bribe when received by Senator Duffy," he said in a statement.
Support for the Conservatives slipped after the scandal broke and polls continue to suggest that the opposition Liberals are likely to win the most seats in the House of Commons in next year's election.
"This is yet another example of the secrecy and alleged corruption involving the Harper Conservatives," said Liberal legislator Marc Garneau.
Duffy is next due to appear in court on September 16, the day after the House of Commons resumes sitting.