Wrongdoing lobbyists let off the hook, critics charge
Lobbying commissioner Karen Shepherd appears at Commons ethics committee to discuss the statutory review of the Lobbying Act on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Critics say it's time to change Canada's Lobbying Act, as they demand the federal watchdog reveal the identities of lobbyists who allegedly broke the rules, but were cleared due to "secret loopholes."
Based on a review of 72 case summaries posted on the official Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying Canada website, the group Democracy Watch says it found 32 lobbyists who were found to have violated the law between 2004 and 2011. Yet none of them were charged by the RCMP or prosecuted by the Crown.
According to Democracy Watch board member Duff Conacher, those cases point to "sham enforcement" of the federal lobbying law.
"Given that this enforcement record is as bad as the former disgraced Integrity Commissioner, the Auditor General must audit the performance of the Commissioner and, after the Auditor reports, the House of Commons should consider the dismissal of the Commissioner," Conacher said in a statement.
Beyond enforcement, Conacher also takes aim at the "secret loopholes" he says have seen 17 cases cleared since 2004.
"Secret, unethical lobbying of the federal government is still legal, even by Cabinet ministers the day after they leave office, and so the lobbying law must changed to close loopholes and strengthen enforcement to finally stop this dangerously undemocratic lobbying by powerful lobbyists," Conacher said.
Since it was implemented five years ago, the Lobbying Act has required those who spend more than 20 per cent of their working time lobbying public office holders to register their government contacts.
The result, critics charge, is that lobbyists fly under the radar by claiming they do not exceed the 20 per cent threshold.
The Lobbying Act is up for debate now, as it's undergoing a statutory five-year review before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.
Given that context, Conacher is suggesting the law be overhauled on a number of fronts including:
- mandatory, random audits of all lobbyists
- public investigations in all cases of suspected violations
- empowering and requiring the commissioner to fine anyone breaking the rules
- limiting the Commissioner to a single term
When she appeared before the Committee in December, the federal lobbying commissioner Karen Shepherd expressed frustration at having to refer some problem cases to MPs or police.
"Right now, what I have at my disposal is educating and monitoring on one hand and, you know, the gap then that exists at the other extreme of referrals to the RCMP and reports to Parliament," Shepherd said, suggesting that she be given the power to independently levy fines.
"The ability to have administrative momentary penalties within my control as well that I could exercise, I think, would help in terms of timely decisions."
Shepherd's counterparts in British Columbia and Alberta have the ability to fine lobbyists up to $25,000 for violations of provincial rules.
On the issue of publicly disclosing her investigations, Shepherd told the committee that she weighs the need to protect the privacy of those who may be wrongfully accused with the public's right to know.
Shepherd is expected to testify before the House Committee on Thursday.