Controversy ... Christopher Pyne. Photo: Glenn Hunt
Opposition frontbencher Christopher Pyne has finally conceded he may have asked for the contact details of the staffer at the centre of sexual harassment allegations against Speaker Peter Slipper.
The National Times yesterday published a copy of the email Mr Pyne sent to an unnamed Slipper staffer after a late-night drinking session with staff member James Hunter Ashby in the Speaker's office.
An email from Christopher Pyne asking for the contact details of James Ashby.
The email, sent at 11.01pm on March 19 asks: "What's James' email address or mobile."
Following the latest revelations, Mr Pyne altered his account of the evening for the third time, conceding he most likely sent an email.
"I mean, why wouldn't I?" he is reported as saying. "I mean, the more contacts I have in the Speaker's office, the better, since it's part of my job to liaise with the Speaker and his office and to stay abreast of developments."
Mr Pyne responded to specific questions whether he had used the email address given to him, saying that he "did not email Mr Ashby after March 19th".
Opposition leader Tony Abbott appeared to confirm contact between his frontbencher and the staffer this morning but said the meeting between his frontbencher and the staffer was insignificant.
''Well, look, there was an innocuous email exchange, one innocuous email exchange, no phone contact whatsoever, no contact whatsoever after that drink, apparently in Peter Slipper's office,'' Mr Abbott said.
''It's the most natural thing in the world for Christopher Pyne to be in the Speaker's office. Now ask Albanese how often did he meet with Peter Slipper, how often did he meet with Mr Slipper's staff?''
Mr Pyne maintains he has "never had any contact of any nature with James Ashby in relation to the Federal Court action" Mr Ashby has taken against Mr Slipper.
But Trade Minister Craig Emerson - who earlier in the week said the Coalition were engaged in a cover-up in their dealings with Mr Ashby - said Mr Pyne had "effectively conceded that he has had email contact with Mr Ashby" on the night of March 19, after Mr Pyne had left the Speaker's office.
"He must furnish these emails," Dr Emerson said. "[Or] Mr Pyne should categorically rule out ever having emailed Mr Ashby."
Through a spokesman, Mr Pyne said: "I've never had any contact of any nature with James Ashby in relation to the Federal Court action.
"If the Labor Party or anyone else has evidence that contradicts that statement, they should produce it," he said.
It is the third time this week Mr Pyne has been forced to alter his account of his dealings with Mr Ashby after he said at the weekend his contact with Mr Slipper's former staffer had been brief.
"I walk into the reception in the Speaker's office with Speaker's staffers there," Mr Pyne said on Sunday. "I've said hello to all of them, so I passed the time of day with all of them."
After the National Times revealed on Tuesday that on the night of March 19 Mr Pyne spent almost two hours drinking and chatting with Mr Ashby and another Slipper staffer in the Speaker's office, the Liberal frontbencher defended the meeting, saying: "I have nothing to hide."
Mr Slipper was not present for the majority of the evening, returning late after an adjournment debate in the chamber. Mr Pyne left the office shortly after Mr Slipper's arrival.
Asked if he had ever sought Mr Ashby's contact details, Mr Pyne replied: "I don't remember ever having asked for Mr Ashby's number."
But Mr Pyne again altered his recollection of the March 19 meeting on Wednesday when the existence of Mr Pyne's email - and a subsequent text message - was revealed by Fairfax papers.
"I don't remember asking for those, but by the same token I could well have," he told ABC Radio yesterday when asked if he had sent the email.
The email added instant fuel to claims made by Labor that Mr Pyne and others in the Coalition had prior knowledge of Mr Ashby's sexual harassment claim lodged against Mr Slipper, which has forced Mr Slipper to stand down indefinitely from the chair.
Mr Pyne this week confirmed he had met Mr Ashby three times - including a meeting at which he personally handed over a wine bottle signed by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott intended as a farewell gift for a Slipper staffer.
It is understood Mr Pyne's meeting with Mr Ashby to hand over the wine - initially delivered to Mr Abbott's office for signing - was only three days after the late-night meeting in the Speaker's office.
Australian Federal Police this week confirmed they had interviewed Mr Ashby, who has accused Mr Slipper in a separate criminal claim of rorting Cabcharge dockets.
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