LIMA, Peru - Prime Minister Stephen Harper insisted Thursday that 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 expenses 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 the same way Canadians did: through media reports. At that point, "I immediately asked that that information be released publicly," he said.
He also described himself as "sorry," "frustrated" and "extremely angry" about the whole mess, which has engulfed his government and threatens its carefully cultivated image as a pillar of accountability and sound financial management.
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 so-far-incomplete findings.
The affair is also under investigation by the federal ethics commissioner.
"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 — like most Canadians — that 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 Conservative caucus last week, after the details of their transaction began to emerge.
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 the prime minister and Duffy remain complicit in a cover-up, and urged the government to disclose any and 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 Conservatives insist there is no paper trail, that no documents were ever drawn up to detail Wright's payment to Duffy.
In that case, let's see 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 during question period.
"Perhaps the good senator was handed a $90,000 bag of cash in small bills. We don't know. So will the government produce the cheque?"
Trudeau also alluded to an email from February that laid out the terms of the deal, suggesting it was in the possession of the Prime Minister's Office and ought to be released.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who was standing in for Harper in the House of Commons for a second straight day Wednesday, said the government intends to co-operate with the ethics commissioner.
— With files from Jennifer Ditchburn, Stephanie Levitz and Bruce Cheadle in Ottawa