News Canada

Stephen Harper escapes to South America amid Senate controversy

By Kristy Kirkup, Parliamentary Bureau

OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper darts off to South America Tuesday as his party and office attempt to put a lid on an explosive Senate firestorm at home.

Harper will dodge the direct ire of opposition parties this week, which will demand answers after his chief of staff Nigel Wright resigned and Senators Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin left the Conservative caucus.

MPs return to the Commons Tuesday following a week-long hiatus while Harper embarks on a planned trade mission to Lima, Peru and Cali, Colombia following a morning caucus meeting.

Harper's trip follows Wright's resignation Sunday over a $90,000 cheque he gave Duffy to help repay the senator's travel and housing expenses that were improperly claimed over four years.

Duffy left the Conservative caucus last Thursday, saying the controversy had become "a significant distraction to my caucus colleagues and to the government."

Federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson is now investigating Wright's gift as questions loom whether this gift is allowed under Senate rules.

In his resignation letter, Wright insisted his actions were in the "public interest" and were intended to "secure the repayment of funds."

Wright also claimed he signed the cheque without Harper's knowledge, but MPs plan to grill the government on whether this arrangement was a bid to "whitewash" the Deloitte audit designed to probe questionable housing expenses by three senators, including Duffy.

Canadian reporters travelling with Harper will also press for answers.

Harper will meet Peru's President Ollanta Humala Tasso Wednesday. He will observe discussions at the Pacific Alliance Leaders' Summit in Colombia later this week.

Kristy.Kirkup@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: @kkirkup

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