OTTAWA - Federal Conservatives hoping they had doused a raging political fire involving Lisa Raitt were rocked Monday by allegations that the natural resources minister was recorded while pouring scorn on a cabinet colleague.
Raitt's woes were compounded when New Democrats reignited a controversy over tens of thousands of dollars in questionable expenses the rookie minister racked up while as a senior executive with the Toronto Port Authority.
But in a case initially shrouded in secrecy, a former senior aide went to court in Nova Scotia to block a Halifax newspaper from publishing the contents of a tape recording which the Liberal opposition said contained "disparaging remarks" about Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.
Justice Gerald Moir of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court dismissed Jasmine MacDonnell's application on Monday evening and revealed details of what is on the recording.
"In the recording minister Raitt and Ms. MacDonnell discuss in a critical manner the political skills of the federal health minister, the honourable Leona Aglukkaq, on the handling of the medical isotope issue. She also discussed her desire to receive credit for dealing with the medical isotope issue and expresses the view it is a sexy issue," he said in his judgment.
"They also discussed pressure placed on Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff by major businesses to refrain from defeating the Conservative government."
In court, Michelle Awad, MacDonnell's lawyer, said the conversation was private and was accidentally taped during a drive in British Columbia in January.
"The conversations were always meant to be private, they were private, they were recorded completely unintentionally," she said.
"Neither Ms. MacDonnell nor the minister knew the conversations was being recorded. ... It (tape recorder) was turned on inadvertently in the bag she was travelling with."
Moir, who told the court the recording is five hours and 16 minutes long, said it should be public.
"It is wrong to deprive the press, and the public it serves, of remarks made privately but not confidentially in the sense of trade secrets," he said.
Although he conceded he hadn't heard the tape himself, Liberal MP David McGuinty earlier told the House of Commons that Raitt reportedly described Aglukkaq as "not very competent."
MacDonnell quit last week over another gaffe involving sensitive documents.
The former communications director for Raitt apparently mislaid her tape recorder following an interview withe the newspaper's lone Ottawa reporter. The device recorded a private conversation with Raitt. The recorder ended up on the desk of Chronicle-Herald reporter Steve Maher.
Both the prime minister's office and Raitt's new spokesman, Steve Outhouse, have refused to comment on the allegations.
McGuinty challenged Raitt in the House of Commons to explain what was on the tape and to state "loud and clear and unequivocally" that his information was untrue.
"I gave her an opportunity to confirm or deny that she was on tape, that she made any such comments," McGuinty said following question period. "She refused to reply; she refused to answer."
The federal Conservatives took pains to put distance between themselves and MacDonnell's court fight - saying both privately and publicly that the government and the party have nothing to do with it.
Both the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois demanded to know who is paying MacDonnell's lawyer.
"It's surprising with someone losing her job and having plenty of money to hire lawyers to support the minister who fired her," said Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe.
A Conservative official said it was "absolutely false" to suggest that the party was bankrolling MacDonnell's legal fight.
"I first heard about it this morning, and we have no involvement whatsoever," said Ryan Sparrow.
If Sparrow first learned about it Monday, his fellow Conservatives in government neglected to tell him. A spokesman for Raitt refused to provide any information about the controversy when contacted on Sunday while doing nothing to deny that his boss was embroiled in a second successive quagmire in less than a week.
As the storm over the tape recording raged in the Commons, Transport Minister John Baird was accused of re-jigging the Toronto port authority's board to "cover up" allegations of mismanagement against Raitt.
The NDP demanded the auditor general examine some $80,000 in travel and hospitality expenses that Raitt ran up in two years while she was CEO of the federal public authority.
She quit the job to run for the Tories.
New Democrat Olivia Chow said four of the nine port authority directors have requested an examination into Raitt's expenses and other management practices at the port authority.
Neither Braid, nor Raitt were available Monday to comment.
The opposition parties said an internal squabble between Raitt and Aglukkaq would undermine the confidence of Canadians at a time when the shutdown of the Chalk River, Ont., nuclear reactor is creating a shortage of medical isotopes, he said.
"Unless these allegations prove to be false it's clear this minister has absolutely no confidence in her colleague's ability to handle what is now a full-fledged health care crisis," said McGuity.
Raitt offered to step down last week after it was revealed sensitive documents about Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. were left at the CTV Ottawa news bureau - a resignation Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to accept.
Instead it was MacDonnell who took the fall.
If Raitt offers to quit again, McGuinty said Harper should accept it.