Canada's Harper under cloud after chief of staff resigns

OTTAWA Mon May 20, 2013 4:54pm EDT

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is seen through a television camera scope while speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, May 16, 2013. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is seen through a television camera scope while speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, May 16, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was under intense pressure on Monday to reassure voters that his administration is above reproach amid questions surrounding a secret check paid to Senator Mike Duffy.

"There's been nothing under this prime minister's watch that's tied him so closely to such a massive ethical scandal. We need to see him show leadership," opposition New Democratic Party Member of Parliament Charlie Angus told a news conference.

Harper's chief of staff, Nigel Wright, resigned on Sunday after news broke that he had written a check from his own bank account for C$90,000 ($88,000) to enable Duffy to repay to the government housing allowances which should not have been claimed.

Senators are banned by their ethics rules from receiving gifts related to their position, and Harper has given no indication of disapproval, saying on Sunday that he accepted that "Nigel believed he was acting in the public interest."

Harper led the Conservatives into office in 2006 on a promise of cleaning up the misdeeds of the previous Liberal government, and has since been reelected twice.

Though he has a parliamentary majority, he is facing a restive caucus and polling numbers that bode trouble for his party in the October 2015 general election, if things are not turned around.

On behalf of the New Democrats, Angus wrote to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on Monday to ask for an investigation into the C$90,000 check.

In particular, he cited news reports that an arrangement was made under which Duffy would stay silent, and that a Senate committee report into Duffy's expense claims were altered or "white-washed."

The Senate committee denied any pressure from the prime minister's office, though it has reopened its investigation after new questions were raised about Duffy's expenses. Duffy said when he resigned from the Conservative caucus on Thursday that he had "sought only to do the right thing" throughout the entire situation.

Harper has called a special meeting of the Conservative parliamentary caucus on Tuesday morning before heading to Latin America on a planned visit, where he is expected to urge probity but is also likely to face complaints from legislators.

"Conservatives are angry and want to get to the bottom of it," Conservative strategist Tim Powers told CBC television.

He added that he wished Duffy and Pam Wallin, another Harper appointee whose expenses are under question and who has resigned from caucus, would go further and resign from the Senate.

Outspoken Conservative Member of Parliament Brent Rathgeber told Global television on Sunday about anger back home: "Any suggestion that taxpayers are treated disrespectfully is met with significant concern, I would say even angst."

One prominent New Democrat legislator, Peter Julian, even went so far as to send out a Tweet with the hash tag #PMHarperMustResign, saying the Conservatives' "poor financial management...& scandals & entitlement" were only matched by the former Liberal government.

In a subsequent email to Reuters he clarified that he did not necessarily endorse the #PMHarperMustResign slogan, which did not originate with him, but wanted to contribute to the discussion about it some elements that had not been mentioned.

NDP spokesman Kiavash Najafi said the party was not calling for Harper's resignation.

($1=$1.02 Canadian)

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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