Former prime minister Stephen Harper and one of his senior aides are now publicly admitting they were aware a Conservative MP had been accused of sexual assault but let him remain on the ballot in the 2015 election.

In a statement late Friday night, Harper said his understanding of the matter involving Rick Dykstra was that the case had been investigated by the police and closed a year prior.

“Great—you guys are protected legally," Jenni Byrne wrote in her email to others in the 2015 Conservative war room, Maclean's reported. "That makes everything better. Sleep well at night. Cheers/Jenni.”

"Given this understanding of the situation, I did not believe that I could justify removing him as a candidate," Harper said in a statement posted on Twitter late Friday after days of questions about what he and other party officials knew and when.

The allegations concern a 2014 incident involving Dykstra, who was then a Conservative member of Parliament, and a staff member on Parliament Hill. They were reported in Maclean's magazine earlier this week.

They have not been tested in court nor independently confirmed by The Canadian Press and Dykstra has denied them, though he stepped down as president of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party after they were made public.

Harper's former chief of staff, Ray Novak, said what the campaign knew in 2015 was that police had investigated a complaint against Dykstra and the investigation was closed.

The party's lawyer looked into the issue, but "unfortunately the facts available at the time were few," Novak said in a statement.

The statements by Harper and Novak came shortly after a new Maclean's report, by investigative journalist Stephen Maher, quoted what senior Conservatives had said about the allegations in the middle of the 2015 election campaign.

The internal discussion was triggered after the Tory campaign chair, Guy Giorno, emailed other colleagues on Sept. 6, about another Conservative candidate, Jerry Bance, who had been caught on camera urinating in a cup while working as an appliance repairman, the magazine reported.

After Giorno asked in his email whether Bance should be dumped, Jenni Byrne reportedly responded with an email the next morning that her colleagues were "all sitting with the knowledge that one of our MPs" had done something worse.

"As much as this is disgusting and embarrassing Jerry is not the biggest candidate concern we have," Byrne wrote, Maclean's reported.

Novak responded moments later.

“I will just note, on the assumption this exchange is likely to come to light in a discovery process should the matter go to court, that I have no such knowledge. I am aware of allegations, I have never met the complainant, and I am assured that those who did interact with her at the time urged her to take the matter to authorities," Novak wrote, according to Maclean's.

Giorno also said he was "aware of no evidence" either, and said party lawyers should be asked to review the matter, prompting what appeared to be a sarcastic reply from Byrne, the magazine report said.​

“Great—you guys are protected legally," she wrote in her email, Maclean's reported. "That makes everything better. Sleep well at night. Cheers/Jenni.”

Rick Dykstra, President, Ontario PC Party,
Rick Dykstra, a former Conservative MP, speaks to reporters in Toronto on Jan. 26, 2017, a few days before he resigned as president of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party. File photo by The Canadian Press

Dykstra remained on ballot

A separate controversy involving Dykstra emerged later in the campaign following a BuzzFeed report that featured a photograph of the former Conservative MP and candidate drinking with multiple high school girls at a bar, including one who was 16 years old at the time. That report quoted the girl's allegations, supported by text messages and social media posts, that Dykstra paid for their drinks and that she was offered a bribe to deny the incident.

Giorno wrote, at the time, that candidates should be dropped after allegations were proven, Maclean's reported, prompting another critical response from Byrne.

“So—our bar is so low re: the other case that even though a girl would file a police report and go swear an affidavit we don’t think that’s enough to drop someone as a candidate," she wrote, according to Maclean's. "We’ve dropped ppl for a lot less."

Still, that Dykstra was able to remain on the ballot when other candidates were let go for seemingly less serious allegations, as was the case with Bance.

Several MPs called for the party to clear up what had happened after differing accounts from campaign staff and executives emerged in the media, largely on an anonymous basis.

Novak said the matter wasn't taken lightly by anyone involved, and hinged on whether a closed investigation without charges was sufficient grounds for firing.

"Certainly, with the benefit of hindsight and additional information, Rick Dykstra should have been fired as a candidate," he said.

"But campaigns don't get do-overs. To this day, I have hoped, particularly in light of recent media reports, that the alleged victim presses charges so this matter can be fully investigated and prosecuted by the police and the courts."

The newly-released emails also contrast with a statement Giorno gave to the Globe and Mail in a report published on Jan. 31.

Giorno was quoted in that report saying that, to the best of his knowledge, the party never had a discussion about "allowing Mr. Dykstra to run as a Conservative candidate," because the party's war room had no information about specific allegations, and it believed the police case was closed.

"I was not aware of specifics of the allegation. I was not aware that the allegation was of sexual assault. I was not aware that the allegation was of any kind of assault. The implication was that the police file was closed because nothing was found. I definitely was not aware that the file was closed at the complainant's request," Giorno said, the newspaper reported.

Concern over how the matter was handled had prompted current leader Andrew Scheer to order an independent third-party investigation.

The details of that have not been announced but Scheer has pledged to make the findings public and said under his leadership, candidates facing such accusations would never be allowed to run.

In his statement, Harper noted that there are discussions all over the world about how to protect sexual assault victims and encourage them to come forward.

"At the same time, we must have some basic standards of process to try and ensure fairness for all involved," Harper said.

"This is a healthy conversation and I hope it brings about positive change for everyone."

Editor's note: This article was updated at 12:45 p.m. ET on Feb. 3, 2018 with additional quotes from Guy Giorno and Jenni Byrne.

Comments

Today's must read