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‘Watch me, you’ll see,’ under fire, new ethics czar vows to let his record do the talking on Trudeau, Morneau investigations

Mario Dion says it could take him a few months to decide what to do with investigations into the prime minister and finance minister, if outgoing ethics commissioner Mary Dawson doesn't wrap them up before she leaves next month.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, is under investigation by the federal ethics commissioner, who is soon to be replaced by veteran public servant Mario Dion, left. The Hill Times photographs by Andrew Meade and Sam Garcia

PUBLISHED :Monday, Dec. 18, 2017 12:00 AM

Canada’s new ethics commissioner says he will take up to a few months to decide what to do with the controversial ethics investigations into Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government and won’t be giving the Liberals any special treatment.  

“Watch me over the coming years, you’ll see,” said Mr. Dion in an interview with The Hill Times, last week after his appearance before the House Ethics Committee.

Mr. Dion’s appointment has been harshly criticized by some, thanks in part to a searing review he received from Canada’s auditor general when he was serving as the federal public sector integrity commissioner, his role prior to leading the Immigration and Refugee Board for the last three years.

Mr. Dion said that he would make decisions on merit while handling the conflict of interest complaints against Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.), and Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.).

  

The current ethics commissioner Mary Dawson is leaving her job on Jan. 8. A spokesperson for her office said she was “working very hard to complete the examination and inquiry” into Mr. Trudeau’s 2016 holiday trip to the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas before her term expired.

Ms. Dawson’s examination of whether Mr. Morneau was in a conflict of interest when he sponsored Bill C-27 on pension reform, while holding shares in his former pension management company, “is also ongoing,” said Alison Zinni, the spokesperson for Ms. Dawson’s office.

If Ms. Dawson does not complete her investigations before she leaves, Mr. Dion has the authority to decide whether he wants to pick up, start over, or drop the investigations entirely.

He told The Hill Times last week on the Hill that he would take “no more than a few months” to decide what he wanted to do with Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau’s cases.

  

When asked if that was too long just to decide whether ongoing investigations should be continued, restarted, or abandoned, he said, “It has to be fair to both the complainants and the subjects [of the investigation].”

Mr. Dion did not offer a clear answer during his House Ethics Committee appearance to questions on how he would handle the Trudeau and Morneau files, but he said it was unlikely he would abandon the investigations.

“If they are not completed prior to my appointment, the entering into effect of my appointment, of my job, my responsibility would be to ensure—because I would own the final results and therefore I have to assess what has been done to date to determine whether I am supportive of that. But abandoning an investigation completely without reason is not something I would do,” Mr. Dion said. “I don’t think that would be appropriate by way of a process.”

“I have to do my own analysis. I have to make a decision as to whether anything needs to be redone, whether there is anything incomplete, but I will work on those pending investigations, of course.”

  

Mr. Dion’s appointment was slammed by ethics advocacy group Democracy Watch, which urged MPs in a press release to reject the appointment, and said they should be “disturbed by Mr. Dion’s record” as the public sector integrity commissioner between 2010 and 2014. The release pointed to a 2014 report from Canada’s auditor general that found “gross mismanagement” of one complaint by the office during Mr. Dion’s time at the helm, as well as federal court rulings on another complaint by a government whistleblower, and a 2011 report by The Globe and Mail that found Mr. Dion had alerted the Privy Council Office to a potentially embarrassing wrongful dismissal suit that was coming its way.

Mr. Dion responded to the auditor general’s report at the time, saying he accepted that there had been a “lack of appropriate procedures in certain areas” during his time as integrity commissioner, but adding that at the time of the investigation in question his office was severely understaffed and dealing with an uptick in complaints.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C.), his party’s vice-chair on the Ethics Committee, said that “the concerns we had in his previous position, I don’t think were fully addressed.”

Conservative MP Peter Kent (Thornhill, Ont.), however, defended the Liberals’ appointment of Mr. Dion, who was appointed to his previous positions by the former Conservative government.

“Because he has had a distinguished career, he has served governments of different political stripes, he has taken challenging assignments, and notwithstanding the errors and mistakes within those organizations,” said Mr. Kent, who also sits on the House Ethics Committee.

Investigations into helicopter ride, Morneau’s pension bill

Citing confidentiality, Ms. Dawson’s office declined to say under which conflict-of-interest provisions her office was conducting her investigations against Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau.

The investigation against Mr. Trudeau started in January in relation to his vacation at the home of the billionaire spiritual head of Ismaili Muslims ,the Aga Khan, on an island in the Bahamas. The investigation is examining whether Mr. Trudeau violated the ethics code by accepting a free vacation from the Aga Khan, and by accepting a free ride in a private helicopter from Nassau to the private island.

The prime minister, cabinet ministers, and parliamentary secretaries are not allowed to accept free travel on chartered 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.

Liberal Party president Anna Gainey, Liberal MP-and-now-Veteran Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan (St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, Nfld.), and their spouses also accompanied Mr. Trudeau and his family on the Bahamas vacation. The Aga Khan Foundation has received millions of dollars over the years from the federal government for its international humanitarian initiatives. Ms. Dawson started the investigation on Jan. 16.

The ethics commissioner is conducting a second investigation to determine if the finance minister broke the Conflict of Interest Act by sponsoring Bill C-27, the pension bill, when he owned about $20-million worth of shares in his former company Morneau Shepell, an international human resources and pension management company. Mr. Morneau has now sold all the shares and is said to have donated the profits he made from those shares since becoming finance minister in Nov. 2015 to the Toronto Foundation, a charity. He has not disclosed the exact amount of the donation. Ms. Dawson started that investigation on Nov. 10.

Ms. Dawson’s office told The Hill Times two weeks ago that the commissioner was working “diligently” to complete the Trudeau investigation.

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