Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he had no prior knowledge of a $90,000 payment by his former chief of staff to cover expenses improperly claimed by Senator Mike Duffy, and if he had known, he "would have said not to do it."

"The facts in this case are clear, they're absolutely clear — they're not good, but they are clear and they are simple. Mr. [Nigel] Wright decided to use his own personal money to assist Mr. Duffy to reimburse the taxpayers of Canada," Harper told reporters Thursday during a press conference with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera.

"That's what he decided to do and he decided not to tell me until the 15th of May, after speculation about the source of funds appeared in the media. As soon as I learned that on the 15th of May, I made that information public. Had I known before the 15th of May, I would have made the information known earlier, and had I known about it before it happened, I would have said not to do it."

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, right, announced the restoration of open access for Canadian beef in Chile at a joint press conference with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera on Parliament Hill Thursday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The prime minister's comments were made the same day he and Pinera announced an agreement to allow Canadian beef exporters immediate and unrestricted access to Chile's market, a deal worth about $5 million a year.

Harper was also asked in French what he told his staff to do to deal with the Senate expenses when the issue first emerged months ago. Harper said he thought it was the resposibility of the Senate to investigate the expenses.

"My view from the outset was that if any expenses had been inappropriately claimed, they should be repaid to taxpayers and until 15th of May, it was my impression that Mr. Duffy had repaid those expenses himself," he said.

PMO addresses Wright severance

Earlier, the Prime Minister's Office told CBC News that Wright will only receive the severance pay he is owed under the law after his resignation over the Senate expenses scandal.

The question of Wright's severance package was posed Wednesday in the House of Commons by NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.

Harper replied Wright will receive what he is entitled to under the law, "and that is it."

Mulcair asked how much that would be. "Would it be of the order of $90,000, by chance?" he asked in French, in reference to the amount of money Wright says he gave Senator Mike Duffy to repay the expenses.

"We are required to pay certain amounts under the law, such as certain accumulated vacation pay. Those policies are clear. They are — the government cannot work around them," Harper said. "Mr. Wright will be paid only those amounts of money and, Mr. Speaker, once again, we have been absolutely clear about this matter."

A government official told CBC News there is no intention to offer discretionary separation pay to Wright, a lump sum payment sometimes paid out to staff if employment ends abruptly.

The government's "Policies for Ministers' Offices" gives examples of situations where separation pay would not ordinarily be provided:

  • To an employee who voluntarily terminates his or her employment and who is commencing alternative employment immediately.
  • To an employee dismissed for cause.

For the two years and four months Wright was employed with the Prime Minister's Office, his severance pay, likely calculated as two weeks of pay for every year served plus outstanding vacation time, may not amount to much. The top tier of pay for a chief of staff is listed as $177,000.

However, it's not known if Wright negotiated a termination agreement before he was hired that would have to be honoured no matter the circumstances of his leaving.