Sex scandal hounds Aussie parliamentary speaker
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SYDNEY - Australia's parliamentary speaker stood aside Sunday following claims he sexually harassed a male staffer and misused taxi services in a case that could hurt the nation's fragile government.
Weekend reports alleged Peter Slipper harassed former staffer James Ashby, including telling him to shower with the door open when he stayed at his home, and "moaning" in a sexual manner after asking him for a massage.
The married Slipper, 62, was also accused of misusing taxpayer-funded taxi services. The ABC said 33-year-old Ashby, who is openly gay, had launched legal action under the Fair Work Act detailing alleged explicit text messages, unwanted sexual advances and inappropriate comments towards him.
Separate reports said he was seeking compensation in the Federal Court as well as orders for his former employer to undergo counselling and anti-discrimination training.
Slipper arrived back in Australia from the United States on Sunday and released a statement "emphatically" denying the allegations. "The allegations include both a claim of criminal behavior and claim under civil law," he said, adding that such allegations were "grave".
"As such, I believe it is appropriate for me to stand aside as speaker while this criminal allegation is resolved. "The allegation is incorrect and once it is clear they are untrue I shall return to the speakership. In relation to the civil matter, there will be an appropriate process that will resolve the matter in due course."
The conservative opposition earlier demanded he be removed from parliament until the issue was resolved as claims of sexual misconduct from 2003 involving him and another male staffer also surfaced. In that incident, reports said a video existed of Slipper lying on a bed with a junior male staffer, hugging him "in an intimate fashion".
The Sydney Sunday Telegraph said he would face a parliamentary vote to oust him if he did not stand aside. His decision to step down before parliament returns on May 8 heads off what could have been a messy dilemma for the government, with any move to unseat him potentially overshadowing the budget, due to be handed down on the same day.
Slipper defected from Tony Abbott's opposition Liberal Party last year so he could be appointed speaker. It stripped one vote from the opposition and shored up Julia Gillard's ruling Labor Party's wafer-thin hold on power.
If he is ultimately forced to resign, Labor would have to appoint one of its own MPs as speaker, reducing its numbers in the lower house. Labor currently has 75 votes to the opposition's 73. In the interim, Labor MP and deputy speaker Anna Burke will take the role, Slipper said in his statement.
Gillard said his standing aside was the right thing to do. "It is appropriate that Mr Slipper has stood aside as speaker whilst alleged criminal conduct is investigated," she said in a short statement. "It is also appropriate for all parties to note the processes under way and treat them with respect."
Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan said Slipper was entitled to the presumption of innocence while the matters were before the court. "We should respect those legal proceedings," he said.