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Ethics czar working ‘diligently’ to complete Trudeau investigation, promises to report ‘in the near future’

Conflict of Interest Act and Conflict of Interest Code for MPs are ‘silent on the approach for continuing an investigation under a new Commissioner,’ says a spokeswoman for Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson.

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson, pictured Oct. 17, 2017, at the House Affairs Committee, will leave office on Jan. 8.The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

PUBLISHED :Monday, Dec. 11, 2017 12:00 AM

Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson, who started investigating last January Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s stay at the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas, is “working diligently” to get it done and make it public in the “near future,” says a spokeswoman for the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner.

“The commissioner is working diligently towards making her report public in the near future,” said Alison Zinni, communications and media adviser to ethics and conflict of interest commissioner in an email to The Hill Times, but declined to say exactly when the report will be made public.

Ms. Dawson’s last day of work is Jan. 8, but it’s unclear if the report will be public by that time.

If Ms. Dawson doesn’t finish her ongoing conflict-of-interest investigations into Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau by Jan. 8, it is up to the new conflict of interest and ethics commissioner to decide whether to continue the investigations, start over, or drop any or all probes altogether.

  

“The Conflict of Interest Act and the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons are silent on whether an examination or inquiry started under one commissioner may be continued by another,” wrote Ms. Zinni. “It would be up to a new commissioner to decide what approach to take.”

She declined to say if Ms. Dawson would be able to complete her investigations by Jan. 8. She also declined to provide an estimated time frame for the completion of the investigations.

Ms. Zinni said the amount of time an investigation requires depends on the availability of witnesses, receiving relevant documents, putting together the draft report, editing, and the translation process. She declined to say how many people are working on both investigations.

“Our office is required to conduct all examinations and inquiries in confidence, so we cannot provide you with any information except to confirm that the examinations and inquiries are ongoing and public reports will be issued as quickly as possible,” said Ms. Zinni.

  

When asked specifically if the new commissioner could choose to drop investigations against Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau, Ms. Zinni stated: “Since the Conflict of Interest Act and the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons are silent on the approach for continuing an investigation under a new commissioner, it would be up to a new commissioner to decide what approach to take.”

Ms. Dawson initiated an investigation into Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) in January under the Conflict of Interest Act in relation to his stay at the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas. The investigation is looking into whether the prime minister breached the ethics code by accepting a free Christmas vacation from the Aga Khan, a multimillionaire and spiritual head of Ismaili Muslims, and by flying aboard a private helicopter from Nassau to the private island. The prime minister, cabinet ministers, and parliamentary secretaries are prohibited from accepting free travel on charter or private aircraft without permission from the ethics commissioner, under the Conflict of Interest Act. Moreover, public office holders are not allowed to accept gifts from anyone who has business dealings with the government.

During the vacation last year, Mr. Trudeau and his family were accompanied by then-Liberal MP, now Veteran Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan (St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, Nfld.), the Liberal Party President Anna Gainey, and their spouses. Over the years, the Aga Khan Foundation has received tens of millions of dollars from the Government of Canada for its international humanitarian work. The ethics commissioner started the investigation on Jan. 16.

Ms. Dawson is also investigating if Mr. Morneau breached the Conflict of Interest Act by tabling Bill C-27, the pension bill, when he held about $20-million worth of shares in his family owned company Morneau Shepell, a human resources and pension management company. Since the issue made national headlines, Mr. Morneau has sold all his shares and has made a significant donation to a charity called the Toronto Foundation. He did not disclose the exact amount of the donation, but in the past had said that he would donate all the profits he made from these shares since becoming cabinet minister in Nov. 2015.

  

Ms. Dawson started the Morneau investigation on Nov. 10.

First appointed to the position of ethics commissioner in 2007, Ms. Dawson’s term in the office ended in the summer of 2016. Since then she has received three six months extensions and is not expected to accept a fourth.

The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner’s Office was first created in 2006.  Stephen Harper was the first prime minister to be investigated by then-commissioner Bernard Shapiro.

Mr. Harper was investigated after the 2006 election for offering “inducement” to then-Liberal MP David Emerson to cross the floor to the Conservatives, and join prime minister Harper’s cabinet. After conducting a preliminary inquiry, Mr. Shapiro concluded that neither Mr. Emerson nor Mr. Harper breached the code of conduct, and dropped the investigation.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s Office told The Hill Times that four senior PMO staffers have recused themselves from the appointment process of the next ethics commissioner because they’re working to defend the prime minister in Ms. Dawson’s investigation, including principal secretary Gerald Butts; chief of staff Katie Telford; senior adviser Mathieu Bouchard; and Ryan Dunn, director of issues management.

Mr. Trudeau has also recused himself from the appointment of the new ethics commissioner and has designated Government House Leader Bardish Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.) to oversee the process in his place.

“Yes, a screen was applied to that small group of employees at PMO who are responsible for preparing materials related to the ethics commissioner’s investigation,” stated Eleanore Catenaro, press secretary to Prime Minister Trudeau, in an email. “You’ll remember that the prime minister has recused himself from all matters related to the appointment of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner.”

Ms. Catenaro declined to say if the new ethics commissioner will be appointed by Jan. 8. She also declined to say if Ms. Dawson could receive a fourth extension.

“We are committed to carrying out this process as quickly as possible through the government’s open, transparent, and merit-based approach to GIC appointments,” said Ms. Catenaro. “At the same time, respect of the parliamentary approvals process is paramount as it is a fundamental element in the appointment of the most qualified person for the position.

Mark Kennedy, director of communications to Ms. Chagger, also declined to say if the new ethics commissioner will be appointed by Jan. 8.

“All I can say at this point is that this government has been following the new appointment process it put in place,” said Mr. Kennedy. “That process is open and transparent and it supports a merit-based selection of the next conflict of interest and ethics commissioner.”

Mr. Kennedy also declined to comment on the possibility of the new ethics commissioner restarting, picking up, or dropping the investigations.

Conservative MP Peter Kent is his party’s ethics critic. The Hill Times file photo

Conservative MP Peter Kent (Thornhill, Ont.) told The Hill Times that Ms. Dawson told him last month that she would not accept a fourth extension. He said that if the new commissioner decided to start the investigations from scratch, or drop it, it would be “unsatisfactory” to Canadians and would cause a “significant outcry.”

“Canadians would be very unhappy and would not accept that sort of outcome,” said Mr. Kent, his party’s ethics critic. “It’s hypothetical. I don’t think we should assume the worst, but the expectation certainly is that these investigations should be concluded, and in fact the investigations of the prime minister are long overdue.”

Mr. Kent said he hoped that Ms. Dawson would conclude both investigations prior to leaving office.

“I would expect the sitting commissioner to deliver her report on the prime minister and the finance minister before she walks out the door,” said Mr. Kent.

NDP MP Murray Rankin (Victoria, B.C.) told The Hill Times that it would be “terrible” if the new ethics commissioner decided to start the investigations all over, or chose to drop the investigations.

“That would be terrible,” said Mr. Rankin, his party’s justice critic. “From a position of a taxpayer, as well as for people who take seriously the role of the commissioner, for a new person to simply say, ‘We’re going to wash our hands of what has already been undertaken, because we have a new commissioner,’ would seem to me to be Canadians would find that very disturbing.”

NDP MP Murray Rankin. The Hill Times file photo by Andrew Meade.

Mr. Rankin suggested that if Ms. Dawson has already done most of the work of the investigations, she should be given time to complete the process. At the same time, he said, Mr. Trudeau could appoint the new commissioner.

Former Senate ethics officer Jean Fournier said he doesn’t find it “unreasonable” that Ms. Dawson’s successor would review the matters and decide, based on the facts, whether the investigations should be started again, draw on the work already done, or be dropped.

“When a new person comes in to a new job, whether it’s the ethics commissioner or the prime minister of Canada, he or she [new ethics commissioner] reviews the files and makes certain decisions with respect to what he or she will pursue and what the priorities are and what he or she may not pursue,” said Mr. Fournier, who is also a former senior public servant and diplomat.

Rob Walsh, a former House of Commons law clerk, told The Hill Times that instead of restarting the investigations, the new commissioner could use some of the information that has already been collected by Ms. Dawson and may decide to do some of his or her own interviews. He also said that the outgoing ethics commissioner may have taken a long time to conclude Mr. Trudeau’s investigation, but the new commissioner could complete the process sooner.

“The new ethics commissioner has the responsibility of making a judgment on the case. [He or she] Will have to inform him or herself on the facts. They can’t just take the previous ethics commissioner’s view of the matter and act on it,” said Mr. Walsh. “He or she will have to inform himself or herself. In that sense, he’ll have to do his own investigation. But, I don’t see why he couldn’t use the information that the outgoing ethics commissioner’s investigation has produced, and take that into account.”

The Hill Times