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Ethics commissioner clears Morneau of wrongdoing in share sale

The Conflict of Interest Act bars public office holders from using insider information not available to the public for personal benefit, though Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson ruled that this 'was not the case' in regards to Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s sale of shares in family-owned Morneau Shepell.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau has been cleared of any wrongdoing related to his sale of shares in Morneau Shepell in November 2015. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

PUBLISHED :Monday, Jan. 8, 2018 3:59 PM

Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson has cleared Finance Minister Bill Morneau of any wrongdoing related to his sale of Morneau Shepell shares in late 2015, saying a high-income earner tax hike proposed by the Liberals that could have affected share prices was publicly announced weeks before the sale date.

In a letter sent to Mr. Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.), Ms. Dawson wrote that then-government House leader Dominic LeBlanc (Beauséjour, N.B.) announced in a media interview on Nov. 4, 2015 that the Trudeau government intended to increase taxes from 29 per cent to 33 per cent for individuals earning more than $200,000 by Jan. 1, 2016.

She also noted that Mr. LeBlanc was quoted in several newspapers on the same date as saying that the House would be recalled on Dec. 3, 2015 and would then look to introduce legislation implementing the tax change, which would take effect on Jan. 1.

Mr. Morneau, though, sold his shares in family-owned business Morneau Shepell on Nov. 30, 2015, and tabled a ways and means motion on the tax hike on Dec. 7, 2015, according to the commissioner’s letter.

  

The Conflict of Interest Act bars public office holders from using insider information not available to the public for personal benefit, though Ms. Dawson ruled that this “was not the case” in regards to Mr. Morneau’s sale of his shares.

The investigation was prompted by requests from NDP MP Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C.) and Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre (Carleton, Ont.) following reports that the finance minister sold a large number of his shares in the pension management and human resources firm after the 2015 election.

When reached, Chloe Luciani-Girouard, press secretary for the finance minister, said Mr. Morneau was “pleased with the outcome” and would “continue to work with the Office of the Ethics Commissioner to ensure he is in full compliance with the rules.”

She added that the finance minister has gone “above and beyond the initial recommendations” from the ethics commissioner by divesting all his family’s holdings in Morneau Shepell, and donating upwards of $10 million dollars from the resulting sale to charity and setting up a blind trust.

  

In a statement provided to The Hill Times, Mr. Poilievre, the Conservative finance critic, said Mr. Morneau “exercised terrible judgment” in failing to put his holdings into a blind trust and accused the finance minister of “hypocrisy” by selling his shares only a month prior to the imposition of a new tax hike, thus “allowing him to avoid paying the rate hike he imposed on others.”

“Conservatives believe it is unwise for ministers to buy or sell shares in the weeks immediately before the introduction of tax measures. Finance Ministers should lead by example. It is not good enough for ministers to boast that their actions are not illegal,” he said, noting that Mr. Morneau remains “under investigation” by the Office of the Ethics Commissioner for introducing a pension bill, C-27 ,which could have impacted his shares in Morneau Shepell.

In the same letter, Ms. Dawson also cleared Mr. Morneau of any wrongdoing related to the Bank of Canada renewing a contract with Morneau Shepell to manage its employee pension plan, saying she was satisfied that as finance minister he had “no involvement” in the decision.

Earlier this year, Ms. Dawson ordered Mr. Morneau to pay $200 for failing to disclose ownership of a villa in France held by a private corporation that lists the minister and his wife as partners.

  

mvigliotti@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times