Lost and found PMO emails yet another Wright-Duffy plot twist

The prime minister was out promoting his new hockey book 'A Great Game.' But Parliament and the RCMP were only interested in the mystery of the suddenly retrievable PMO emails, Chris Hall writes.

Forget the hockey book, Parliament is all wrapped up in its favourite mystery

One of the reasons Prime Minister Stephen Harper wasn't in question period on Monday was because he was promoting his new hockey book, "A Great Game." (Frank Gunn / Canadian Press)

It's said the Mounties always get their man. Well, investigators looking into the Nigel Wright-Mike Duffy affair finally got their missives.

RCMP investigators were undoubtedly pleased to get their hands on the PMO emails they'd been told no longer existed, even though it's far too early to know what's actually in the messages of the prime minister's former lawyer, Benjamin Perrin, or what impact his words will have on the on-going investigation.

What is clear is that Perrin, as Stephen Harper's legal counsel, played a prominent role in the negotiations to get Senator Mike Duffy to repay $90,000 in improper expenses.

The RCMP documents that rocked official Ottawa two weeks ago are studded with references to Perrin. In particular, he is named in numerous exchanges related to the five conditions Mike Duffy set for repaying his expenses

One of those references is the pivotal Feb 22 email from Harper's former chief of staff Nigel Wright who indicated they were ''good to go from the PM'' once Perrin and Duffy's lawyer signed off on the media lines for the Senate committee probing the expenses.

Perrin was also among the handful of top Conservatives who knew Wright had decided to pay back Duffy's expenses himself — something the prime minister maintains he didn't learn until May 15, when it all became public..

New life to an old scandal

So, not surprisingly, the mere existence of Perrin's emails, absent any hint of their actual contents, is generating great interest on Parliament Hill, and giving new life to a scandal the prime minister just can't seem to put behind him.

"Why has the government changed its story once again?" NDP leader Thomas Mulcair demanded right off the bat in question period Monday.

Benjamin Perrin, a UBC law professor, was the special adviser and legal counsel to the prime minister from 2012-13. (CBC)

Liberal MP Dominic Leblanc picked it up from there. He called the lost and found emails part of an established pattern in the prime minister's office to try to whitewash any investigation into Duffy's expenses.

"So considering the lack of trust Canadians have in this prime minister and his office, can the prime minister assure Canadians that no member of this staff had access to these emails from Mr. Perrin and was able to delete, doctor, alter or whitewash his emails as well.''

The prime minister followed his usual pattern of not attending question period on Mondays. So the answers fell to junior cabinet minister Pierre Poilievre, the government's responder of choice when the going gets toughest.

Playing the role for which he was cast, Poilievre accused both Mulcair and Leblanc of taking more than the usual liberties with the facts.

For one, he said, the insistence that Perrin's emails had been destroyed came from the Privy Council Office — the bureaucratic department that serves the prime minister — and not the PMO.

For another, the bureaucrat in charge confirmed in writing to the RCMP that the mistake was theirs and theirs alone, and that the normal protocol is indeed to erase the emails and email accounts of PMO staff once they leave.

Perrin's were discovered, the PCO letter added, only after the RCMP asked again if any back-ups existed.

They had been preserved, apparently, because of an on-going lawsuit unrelated to the Wright-Duffy affair.

A plausible rationale. But it does make you wonder why simply typing ''Perrin'' into the search function failed to produce the same result months ago.

"The operative verb here is to read,'' Poilievre admonished the opposition.

As soon as the PCO confirmed Perrin's emails had been found, he added, "the prime minister said that the information should be shared with the RCMP and the existence of the emails should be made public.''

Added information for investigators

In other words, Poilievre was saying, there was no cover-up. The reappearance of the emails had nothing to do with the PMO, or any members of its staff, just as those same folks had nothing to do with their alleged destruction.

What he neglected to mention was that Harper's staff waited two days before making the news public, and held back on the announcement until after the prime minister had stepped to the stage on Sunday at a gala fundraiser in Toronto.

But perception is the least of the government's challenges right now in light of Perrin's suddenly retrievable emails, even if you include why the RCMP continued to ask for them long after being told they no longer existed.

The opposition argues that their appearance further undermines the government's credibility and its version of the events that led to Wright digging into his own pocket for the $90,000 Duffy needed to repay.

The government response is that it was a bureaucratic foul-up. Plain and simple.

Either way, the RCMP now has another source of inside information about the events that led to the Wright-Duffy deal — from a senior adviser who had unique access to the prime minister as his lawyer.

RCMP documents already released show that Perrin was in regular contact with Duffy's lawyer starting Feb 19 as the PMO sought to deal with a problem that had defied every solution.

Perrin was also copied on many emails sent by Wright and others. Investigators want to know what he said in reply, even if it only confirms what they already know.

But these particular emails are not the only new source of information that will soon be in investigators' hands.

The RCMP has also asked for the emails of senators Marjorie Lebreton, Carolyn Stewart-Olsen and David Tkachuk. The three Conservative senators were in regular contact with the PMO about how to handle the Duffy affair.

Investigators were critical of all three in documents made public two weeks ago, suggesting their answers on the PMO's attempt to influence the Senate committee report on Duffy were at odds with the evidence.

Senate speaker Noel Kinsella confirmed Monday that the Senate waived its customary parliamentary privilege over its affairs to ensure that can't be used as "a shield to inhibit a police investigation.''

As they say, the Mounties always get their missives.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.


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