Christopher Pyne. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
COALITION frontbencher Christopher Pyne spent almost two hours drinking and chatting with James Ashby a month before the political staffer lodged court documents accusing Speaker Peter Slipper of sexual harassment and misusing Cabcharge dockets.
The National Times has learnt that on the night of March 19, about 9.30pm, Mr Pyne - the manager of opposition business in the House of Representatives - met Mr Ashby and another Slipper staffer in the Speaker's office.
Two separate sources have confirmed details of the meeting to the National Times. Both insist Mr Pyne rang back later the same evening to request Mr Ashby's mobile phone number.
Mr Pyne confirms the meeting took place but says he can "not remember" ever having requested Mr Ashby's mobile number.
"I don't remember ever having asked for Mr Ashby's number," he said. "I have met Mr Ashby on three occasions, and I have never had any need to phone him."
The Liberal Party powerbroker continues to deny he had any prior knowledge of the claims Mr Ashby made in the Federal Court documents or that he had ever had a discussion with the staffer over his concerns about Mr Slipper.
A source close to Mr Slipper's office told the National Times that, during the evening of March 19, Mr Ashby revealed personal details to Mr Pyne, a claim Mr Pyne strenuously denies.
"I have nothing to hide," Mr Pyne said. "I was simply passing the time of day. We had a beer and a political discussion."
Asked if Mr Ashby raised with him any concerns regarding Mr Slipper, Mr Pyne replied, "No. Not at all."
The revelation of the March 19 meeting between Mr Pyne and Mr Ashby and the request for a phone number add to previous statements by Mr Pyne in which he described his contact with Mr Ashby as brief.
Mr Slipper was not in his office on the night of the 19th, as he was presiding over an adjournment debate in the House of Representatives.
After being invited in for a drink, Mr Pyne stayed drinking with Mr Ashby - then a junior media officer in the Speaker's office - and the other unnamed staffer until after 11pm.
When Mr Slipper returned to the office, Mr Pyne left.
Mr Pyne said that it was not unusual for him to socialise with Mr Slipper's staff in the Speaker's absence, saying: "I am the manager of opposition business and part of my responsibilities is that I have a greater level of contact with the Speaker's office than the average member of Parliament."
On Sunday, Mr Pyne told Sky News that the first knowledge he had of Mr Ashby's Federal Court action was when he read about it in the News Ltd press the previous Saturday.
"I had no specific knowledge of these claims before that, of course I've had contact with the Speaker's office, as manager of opposition business over the last six months, but I had no knowledge of these extraordinary serious allegations until I read about them in the newspaper in the News Ltd press," he said.
Asked if he had ever had contact with Mr Ashby during the course of his employment in the Speaker's office, Mr Pyne replied: "How could I not when I walk into the reception in the Speaker's office with Speaker's staffer there; I've said 'hello' to all of them, so I passed the time of day with all of them."
Mr Pyne repeated he had never discussed with the staffer the allegations of the misuse of Cabcharge dockets, nor the sexual harassment claims made in the Federal Court civil case.
Asked on the ABC's 7.30 last week if there was evidence to suggest Mr Ashby had received help from the Coalition in preparing his Federal Court claim, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott replied: "Not that I'm aware of."
Mr Ashby claims in documents lodged with the Federal Court that Mr Slipper walked into his office and said: "Can I kiss you both?" There was no one else present. This is alleged by Mr Ashby to have happened the day after Mr Pyne had a drink with him.
In addition, Mr Ashby claims that Mr Slipper called into question via text message on February 26 "whether your loyalty [sic] was to thugs in LNP or to me!"
In a subsequent text message sent to Mr Ashby, Mr Slipper said: ";;) ok I do like you but must understand I get upset when you play with my enemies and keep me in the dark. It is not what I expect of someone I considered I am close to. If you find this intolerable please discuss".
Mr Ashby resigned as a member of the Liberal National Party and accepted the job as an adviser to Mr Slipper on December 22 last year.
Mr Slipper, who has denied criminal accusations he misused taxpayer-funded taxi vouchers, also denies the civil claim that he sexually harassed Mr Ashby.
Mr Slipper, a Sunshine Coast MP, has stood aside as Speaker indefinitely while the allegations are investigated.
A request for comment from Mr Ashby has been sought through public relations representative Anthony McLellan.
Treasurer Wayne Swan has called on Mr Pyne to provide his phone records to clear him of the claim that he had procured Mr Ashby's mobile phone number.
Mr Swan told reporters Mr Pyne and Mr Abbott had not adequately answered whether the Coalition had contact with Mr Ashby about the federal court claim prior to its lodging.
''I think when you've listened to Mr Abbott's slippery answers about these questions, he has not answered the question of whether he had any knowledge of the Ashby claim,'' Mr Swan said.
''I think Mr Pyne has many questions to answer. Did he phone Mr Ashby after he requested his telephone number? Is he prepared to provide his phone records and make those public if he hasn't phoned Mr Ashby?
''I think the same standard that is being applied to Mr Slipper ought to be applied to the opposition. Let's see some consistency from them. They've had plenty to say about this. Let's see them answer a few of these questions.''
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