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New ethics czar Dion says he ‘has no IOUs,’ not looking for another promotion, this is it

By Abbas Rana      

Mario Dion, who's been doing media interviews about his new job, says he does not fear what will happen if he performs his duties independently.

New Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion says his new job as ethics commissioner is 'about as high as I will get,' freeing him to perform his duties fearlessly.
The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Canada’s new ethics commissioner, who has been criticized by government whistleblowers as a life-long bureaucrat who protects his bosses, says he is best-placed to do the job because he’s not interested in pleasing higher-ups and has no IOUs.

Mario Dion, who decided to do media interviews about his new job over the last two weeks, said he’s financially secure, not pursuing any future career promotions in the federal government, and that his current position is as high as he will get professionally.

“I’m probably in the best situation because I have acquired financial independence, I’m not pursuing other promotions, I’m 61 years old, I have 37 years of service,” said Mr. Dion, who took over his new position on Jan. 9, in an interview with The Hill Times. “I do not have IOUs.”

Mr. Dion, who was appointed to the position of conflict of interest and ethics commissioner last month for seven years, is an independent officer of the House of Commons, and will advise appointed and elected government officials on how to avoid conflicts of interest between their official duties and personal affairs. He will also investigate any complaints of conflicts of interest that arise from time to time about top appointed and elected officials. Mr. Dion has succeeded outgoing commissioner Mary Dawson, who held the position for about a decade. Prior to his current position, he served as chairperson of Immigration and Refugee Board; and before that, was the Public Service Integrity Commissioner, a position intended to protect whistleblowers that expose wrongdoing in the government.

When he was integrity commissioner, he received sharp rebukes for his performance from whistleblower groups and Auditor General Michael Ferguson.

In a report about the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner’s Office released in 2014, Mr. Ferguson said that his staff found “gross mismanagement” in two separate case files of whistleblowers that they reviewed. At the time, some whistleblower groups in media interviews blasted Mr. Dion and asked for his removal, one saying he was no better than his predecessor Christiane Ouimet. “Dion has failed, in my opinion, at least as badly as Christiane Ouimet,” said Allan Cutler, who heads Canadians for Accountability, in an interview with The Toronto Star.

“Now you’re putting these people in a position where their job is to expose wrongdoing which will embarrass their deputy minister and departments, if it’s done properly,” David Hutton, executive director of the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform, or FAIR, told The Canadian Press in April 2014.

“So you’re asking them to do something that is completely against their instincts.”

After Mr. Dion’s appointment to the current position in December, Mr. Hutton predicted in a recent interview with The Hill Times that the commissioner will side with the government in his decisions on conflict of interest complaints.

“He’ll do exactly what the government would like him to do,” Mr. Hutton said, adding that he was making this prediction based on Mr. Dion’s past performance as the public sector integrity commissioner. “He’s a completely reliable ethics commissioner from their [the government’s] point of view.”

But Mr. Dion told The Hill Times that his record will speak for itself, and he will perform his duties fearlessly.

“I do not fear what will happen and I’m not trying to get a higher promotion,” said Mr. Dion. “It’s about as high as I will get in any event.”

Mr. Dion said, last week, he applied for the job online in August out of his own volition, and no one had asked him to do so. He said that to the best of his knowledge, the Prime Minister’s Office had completely stayed out of the selection process, and did not know how many candidates had applied for this position.

In May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) announced that he would recuse himself from appointing the new ethics commissioner. The reason was that Ms. Dawson was investigating Mr. Trudeau for his Christmas vacation in 2016 at the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas. In his place, Mr. Trudeau asked Government House Leader Bardish Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.) to oversee the process.

In November, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that Mr. Trudeau, and four senior officials—chief of staff Katie Telford, principal secretary Gerald Butts, senior adviser and lawyer Mathieu Bouchard, and director of issues management Ryan Dunn—had recused themselves from the ethics commissioner’s recruitment process. The senior staffers recused themselves because they were helping Mr. Trudeau deal with the investigation.

Last month, Ms. Dawson released her report, after a year-long investigation, finding Mr. Trudeau in contravention of the Conflict of Interest Act when he vacationed at the Aga Khan’s home on Bell Island.

Mr. Dion told The Hill Times that for his new job, he was interviewed by two senior PCO officials, the comptroller general of Canada, the chief of staff to the president of the Treasury Board, and the chief of staff to the government House leader. He said there was only one interview, which lasted for about an hour. As part of the selection process, he underwent a psychometric test, and an English proficiency test, as he had misplaced the document that proved he had been granted an exemption from the language proficiency test in 1985.

On Dec. 12, Mr. Dion appeared before the House Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics Committee to answer questions from the committee members. Following the committee appearance, his appointment was approved by a vote in the House before the Parliament adjourned for the Christmas break.

As ethics commissioner, Mr. Dion will investigate any complaints that the most powerful government officials have potentially breached federal conflict of interest rules. One of the most high-profile cases that he has inherited from Mary Dawson is an examination of whether Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.) was in a conflict of interest when he introduced Bill C-27, the pension bill, in Nov. 2016, while he still owned shares in his family-owned human resources and pension management company, Morneau Shepell. Prior to the 2015 election, Mr. Morneau had worked as the company’s CEO.

Before leaving her job, Ms. Dawson cleared Mr. Morneau of another investigation in which the finance minister was accused of getting a financial benefit based on the insider information, when he sold shares in Morneau Shepell after becoming a cabinet minister in 2015. The Conservatives had requested Ms. Dawson to look into the timing of the transaction of sale of shares, and whether Mr. Morneau and his father had benefited financially.

Mr. Dion told The Hill Times last week that in his first week in the new job, he received briefings from his officials about Mr. Morneau’s case and had given the green light to continue the investigation. He said the investigation would start exactly where Ms. Dawson had left off. Mr. Dion said that he’s hoping to file his report by the end of spring. The House is supposed to rise for the summer recess on June 22, and the last day of spring is June 21. If all parties agree, the House could rise sooner than June 22. Mr. Dion said in the interview that he was aware of the House schedule, but that was not a factor in when the report will be issued.

The report about Finance Morneau’s potential conflict of interest regarding Bill C-27 is expected to come out by the end of the spring. The Hill Times file photograph.

“I’m quite confident that by the end of this spring this should be completed,” said Mr. Dion, adding that the timing of the release of the final report depended on a number of factors, including availability of people involved for interviews, and whether Mr. Morneau was guilty of a conflict of interest or not.

Mr. Dion said that in his first two weeks in office, he had done about 10 media interviews with English and French newspapers, radio and TV networks, as he thinks media is an important player in any democratic system. He said that it was mainly his idea to do all those interviews, and his communications staff didn’t “oppose this idea.” Mr. Dion said that he follows news closely, and will make himself and his office available for information whenever journalists have questions.

arana@hilltimes.com

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