Pyne email surfaces as 'cover-up' claims persist
An email from Christopher Pyne asking for the contact details of James Ashby.
It is the email that Christopher Pyne can't remember sending.
The National Times has obtained a hard copy of an email from the Liberal frontbencher asking for the contact details of the staffer at the centre of sexual harassment allegations against Speaker Peter Slipper.
Mr Pyne has twice this week been forced to alter his account of his dealings with James Hunter Ashby after he said at the weekend his contact with Mr Slipper's former staffer had been brief.
Altered his account ... Christopher Pyne, left, pictured here with Tony Abbott. Photo: Andrew Meares
''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 yesterday when the existence of Mr Pyne's email - and a subsequent text message - was revealed by Fairfax Media.
''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.
Mr Pyne denies having ever spoken with Mr Ashby about the alleged sexual harassment but yesterday qualified his original statement, saying: ''Even if James Ashby had raised these matters with me or anyone else, well, quite frankly he is within his rights to do so.''
The Liberal powerbroker dodged questions over whether he had ever contacted Mr Ashby by email, saying only: ''I've never spoken to James Ashby on the phone and I've never texted him on the phone.''
But in documents obtained by the National Times, Mr Pyne is shown to seek Mr Ashby's mobile number and email address.
Mr Pyne's email was sent to an unnamed staffer in the Speaker's office at 11.01pm on March 19 - minutes after he left the late-night chat session in the Speaker's office - and asks: ''What's James' email address or mobile.''
The reply email is time-stamped as 10.02pm, the one-hour difference explained by the message having been sent from a BlackBerry programmed to Queensland time - one hour behind the ACT - and synced with a computer in Mr Slipper's Sunshine Coast electorate office.
In fact, the reply was sent one minute after the original email from Mr Pyne was received. All non-government staffers' emails end with the profile @aph.gov.au.
It is understood Mr Pyne has known the sender of the email for many years.
The email adds 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 with 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 can be revealed 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.
Treasurer Wayne Swan has called on Mr Pyne to release his phone records while Trade Minister Craig Emerson alleged an opposition ''cover-up''.
Mr Pyne says he visited the Speaker's office on March 19 to discuss procedural matters but had forgotten Mr Slipper was presiding over the chamber.
Australian Federal Police yesterday confirmed they had interviewed Mr Ashby, who has accused Mr Slipper in a separate criminal claim of rorting Cabcharge dockets.
The AFP said yesterday its investigators had spoken to a number of potential witnesses and gathered information and that ''the AFP has now assessed that the matter requires further investigation''.
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