* Expenses crisis threatening to undermine government
* Conservatives trailing in opinion polls
By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA, May 19 The top aide to Canadian Prime
Minister Stephen Harper abruptly resigned on Sunday over his
role in an mounting expenses scandal which is threatening to
undermine the Conservative government.
Nigel Wright, Harper's chief of staff, quit after secretly
giving a C$90,000 ($87,000) check in February to Mike Duffy, a
member of the upper Senate chamber, to help him cover living
expenses he had improperly claimed. News of the gift leaked late
Opposition legislators said the large check broke ethics
rules forbidding senators from taking presents and made a
mockery of the government's repeated promises to increase
accountability in Ottawa. Duffy, a former national television
journalist, resigned from the Conservative caucus on Thursday.
Wright's departure reflects the pressure Harper is under.
Officials told reporters on Friday that the chief of staff - who
says he did not tell Harper about the check - would be staying.
"In light of the controversy surrounding my handling of
matters involving Senator Duffy, the prime minister has accepted
my resignation," Wright said in a statement.
"I regret the impact of this matter on the government, our
caucus, and all of my colleagues," added Wright, a businessman
who had been on secondment to Harper's office from private
equity firm Onex Corp. He started work on Jan 1, 2011.
The expenses affairs is one of the biggest crises to hit the
Conservatives since they took power in early 2006 promising to
clean up government after a series of scandals helped bring down
the previous Liberal administration.
Pamela Wallin, another Conservative senator whose expenses
have been questioned, quit the caucus late on Friday. Wallin is
also a former television journalist.
Opinion polls show the Conservatives trailing the Liberals,
who have steadily grown more popular since Justin Trudeau - the
telegenic son of former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau -
was elected leader last month.
Harper said he had accepted Wright's resignation with great
"I accept that Nigel believed he was acting in the public
interest but I understand the decision he has taken to resign,"
he said in a separate statement.
A federal election is not due until October 2015 and the
Conservatives have a comfortable majority in the House of
But Harper could be in for a tough two years in parliament
if he doesn't move quickly to draw a line under the matter.
Canada's federal ethics commissioner is examining whether
Wright broke government rules about giving gifts.
Duffy was named to the unelected Senate in December 2008 and
was a popular and effective fund-raiser for the party.
The Conservatives initially said he had shown leadership by
accepting the check rather than leaving taxpayers on the hook
for the C$90,000.
They quickly changed their tune amid media reports that
Duffy had claimed daily living expenses from the Senate while
actually campaigning for the Conservatives ahead of a federal
election in May 2011.
Opposition parties are demanding a probe into the