* Crisis is biggest to hit Conservatives since 2006
* Conservatives fear scandal will damages party's reputation
* Polls show party trailing Justin Trudeau's Liberals
By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA, May 21 Canadian Prime Minister Stephen
Harper on Tuesday dismissed a mushrooming expenses scandal as a
distraction, but also said he was "very upset" that members of
his Conservative Party had apparently tapped the public purse
for personal gain.
Harper, facing the biggest crisis since he won power in
early 2006 with promises to clean up government, urged
legislators to focus on the economy, which the Conservatives see
as their strongest suit.
"We have an active and important agenda on the issues that
matter to hard-working Canadian families ... when distractions
arise, as they inevitably will, we will deal with them firmly,"
Harper told his Conservative caucus.
"But we cannot lose sight of our top priority."
In a widening spending scandal that is being investigated by
ethics commissioners, three Conservative senators have stepped
down to sit as independents after audits indicated they claimed
expenses to which they were not entitled.
Harper's chief of staff, Nigel Wright, resigned on Sunday
after secretly writing a personal check for C$90,000 ($88,000)
to enable one of the three, Senator Mike Duffy, to repay housing
allowances that he should not have claimed.
Critics say the large check broke ethics rules that prevent
senators from taking gifts. Conservative legislators and their
supporters fear that the scandal in the Senate, the upper house
of Parliament to which members are appointed by the government,
will damage the party's reputation.
The New Democrats, the official opposition, say the
Conservatives have violated the trust of voters.
"These aren't distractions. This is about the abuse of
public trust," NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said. "The prime
minister's ethical brand is deeply damaged at this point."
Speaking to the caucus before leaving for a visit to Latin
America, Harper made no mention of Duffy, Wright or the C$90,000
check. But he tried to ease some of the concerns of his fellow
legislators by criticizing those he suggested were to blame.
"I'm not happy. I'm very upset with the conduct of some
parliamentarians and our officials in my office," he said.
"Anyone who wants to use public office for their own benefit
should make other plans or better yet, leave this room."
Duffy quit the Conservative caucus last Thursday. A fellow
Conservative senator Pamela Wallin, whose expenses are also
being probed, followed suit on Friday. A third senator, also
embroiled in the expenses scandal, quit in February after he was
charged with assault.
"This is an unfortunate, unacceptable situation ... (Harper)
has expressed leadership and that's exactly what I wanted to
hear from him," Treasury Board Secretary Tony Clement told
reporters after the prime minister spoke.
Polls taken before the scandal broke last Tuesday showed the
Conservatives trailing the opposition Liberals, who are led by
Justin Trudeau, the photogenic son of former Liberal Prime
Minister Pierre Trudeau.
The next election is not due until October 2015.