Morneau takes heat in the House over ethics probe
Published Monday, November 20, 2017 4:17PM EST
Last Updated Monday, November 20, 2017 6:38PM EST
OTTAWA – Despite declaring he's now sold off his Morneau Shepell shares, Finance Minister Bill Morneau was under fire from the opposition parties Monday over the ethics commissioner’s investigation into whether he’s breached federal conflict of interest law.
In the first question period since Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson confirmed that she has launched a formal investigation into Morneau’s sponsorship of Bill C-27, the government’s pension reform bill, the finance minister told the House of Commons that he has sold all of his shares in the human resources company that bears his family name, and made a "large donation to charity."
But that didn't quell opposition questioning.
"The minister just said that now that he has sold all of his shares in Morneau Shepell, he can now work on behalf of Canadians. What does that say about the last two years while he held those shares?" said Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre. He went on to ask if Morneau had permission from Dawson to table the bill.
In response, Morneau said he intends to comply with the ethics probe, and continue on with his work on behalf of Canadians.
In October, Morneau announced he would be divesting himself of the Morneau Shepell shares, putting his other assets in a blind trust and donating to charity any increase in the value of the shares since being elected. This decision came after a series of news stories uncovered that Morneau was not using a blind trust, and instead was using a corporate structure and an ethics law loophole to still indirectly hold his shares.
The news of the ethics investigation came just before Parliament paused for a constituency week. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was also questioned as conflict of interest accusations continue to circle his finance minister.
"It seems this prime minister will walk across broken glass to defend his ethically embattled finance minister, but won’t lift a finger to help out Canadian pensioners. Bill C-27 is not only a clear attack on workers' pensions, it’s also a massive conflict of interest… so will the prime minister maybe update his hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil ethics code?" said NDP ethics critic Nathan Cullen on Monday.
In response, Trudeau said he would not attack the commissioner or bodies of Parliament generally.
In the Nov. 10 letter to Cullen, who first asked her to dig deeper, Dawson said she had "reasonable grounds"—citing section 45(1) of the Conflict of Interest Act -- to "commence an examination" into whether Morneau contravened Canadian ethics laws by sponsoring the pension legislation while still indirectly owning shares in Morneau Shepell.
On Nov. 10, Dawson confirmed to CTV News the investigation is solely focused on Morneau’s sponsorship of Bill C-27, which proposes changes to private pensions, something that would fall under the company's purview.
Section 45(1) of the Conflict of Interest Act states that if the ethics commissioner has reason to believe a public office holder has contravened the Act, she can “examine the matter on his or her own initiative,” and unless the examination is stopped, the commissioner will provide the Prime Minister with a report laying out the facts, and the commissioner’s conclusion to whether the public office holder broke the law.
Bill C-27 was tabled in October, 2016, and has not yet been debated. The opposition has called for the Liberals to remove the bill from the notice paper and to close the loophole in the ethics law that allowed Morneau to continue to indirectly hold shares while finance minister. So far the government has opted against doing either.
When Morneau took the finance minister position, Dawson set up an ethics screen managed by his chief of staff to keep the minister from getting involved in government business that could affect Morneau Shepell. But his continued ownership of the giant HR firm’s shares created the potential for Morneau to have violated the Conflict of Interest Act, the opposition has said.
In an interview on CTV’s Question Period that aired Oct. 29, Morneau said he didn’t see his sponsorship of Bill C-27 as a conflict “at all.”
In a statement issued in October, Morneau Shepell said it was not involved in the consultation on Bill C-27, and despite the company supporting the proposed changes, the legislation “is not expected to have a material impact on our company.”
Concerns flagged in September
Weeks before Dawson launched her formal investigation into Morneau’s sponsorship of the pension bill, a group representing retired Canada Post workers raised concerns about the finance minister’s potential conflict of interest with her office.
Peter Whitaker, a member of the Canada Post Pension Advisory Council, told CTV’s Power Play on Monday that the group hand-delivered a letter to Dawson’s office on Sept. 18, outlining their concerns.
He said he did not hear back from Dawson’s office until after he spoke to a reporter last week. By then, opposition parties had already asked Dawson to get involved and she had confirmed her investigation.
Whitaker said Dawson’s office told him that, as a private citizen, he could not be involved in the federal watchdog’s conflict of interest investigation, but that he could read her final report when it’s released.
He said the Canada Post Pension Advisory Council sees Morneau’s sponsorship of Bill C-27 as “a conflict of interest because his former company that he had shares in would stand to benefit from this type of legislation.”
Whitaker said he believes that Bill C-27 is now “tainted” because of Morneau’s involvement and needs to be withdrawn.