Lib­eral min­is­ters de­fend use of con­flict screens

Winnipeg Free Press - - NEWS -

TTAWA — Sev­eral mem­bers of Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau’s cabi­net are us­ing con­flict-ofin­ter­est screens to keep them out of con­tro­versy — and they in­sist the tools work very well.

The screens have been pulled into an in­tense pub­lic de­bate in re­cent weeks amid al­le­ga­tions of con­flict of in­ter­est that have stalked Fi­nance Min­is­ter Bill Morneau.

Morneau set up one of the screens af­ter en­ter­ing of­fice in 2015 on a rec­om­men­da­tion from the fed­eral ethics com­mis­sioner, who told him a blind trust wouldn’t be nec­es­sary since his shares in his fam­ily’s firm were in­di­rectly held through pri­vate com­pa­nies. There­fore, she said, they were not con­sid­ered a con­trolled as­set un­der the Con­flict of In­ter­est Act.

Po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents have at­tacked Morneau for choos­ing a screen rather than a blind trust. For his part, Morneau has main­tained he has not been in a con­flict of in­ter­est.

A few of Morneau’s cabi­net col­leagues also have screens, how­ever, for dif­fer­ent rea­sons.

Jus­tice Min­is­ter Jody Wil­son-Ray­bould and In­fra­struc­ture Min­is­ter Amar­jeet Sohi are us­ing con­flict-ofin­ter­est screens to pre­vent them from par­tic­i­pat­ing in matters or de­ci­sions re­lated to com­pany hold­ings in­volv­ing their spouses.

Fish­eries Min­is­ter Do­minic LeBlanc also has a screen to en­sure he ab­stains from par­tic­i­pat­ing in de­ci­sions re­lated to J.D. Irv­ing Ltd. be­cause of his close friend­ship with the Irv­ing fam­ily.

LeBlanc said Mon­day that ethics com­mis­sioner Mary Daw­son rec­om­mended he set up an ethics screen for any cabi­net or privy coun­cil doc­u­ments that have any­thing to do with J.D. Irv­ing Ltd., or its af­fil­i­ates and sub­sidiaries.

“Un­der the rules, you shouldn’t be us­ing... your pub­lic of­fice to ben­e­fit a friend,” LeBlanc said. “From my per­spec­tive it’s work­ing very well.”

LeBlanc’s screen, in place since early 2016, means he wouldn’t have been privy to cabi­net in­for­ma­tion about ship­build­ing con­tracts or even the En­ergy East pipe­line, both of which have con­nec­tions to Irv­ing.

Sohi said Mon­day that he has a screen in place to pre­vent him from par­tic­i­pat­ing in de­ci­sions that could ben­e­fit his wife’s hold­ings in a com­pany that’s also a par­tial owner of farm­land in Al­berta.

He ar­gues the screen, which is over­seen by his chief of staff, has proven al­ready to be an ef­fec­tive tool.

Sohi said be­cause of the screen he’s been re­moved from the ap­proval process for an in­fra­struc­ture project that was pro­posed by the prov­ince. It would be in close prox­im­ity to the farm­land.

“My chief of staff has made sure that I do not par­tic­i­pate in any shape or form in the ap­proval of that par­tic­u­lar project,” Sohi said.

“It will be done by a dif­fer­ent min­is­ter and it would have to go the Trea­sury Board to make sure there’s no con­flict what­so­ever.”

Wil­son-Ray­bould’s pro­file on the ethics com­mis­sioner’s web­site states that she must ab­stain from de­ci­sions or matters re­lated to self-gov­ern­ment talks with First Na­tions and In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties with the con­sult­ing com­pany, KaLoNa Group, in which she holds a sig­nif­i­cant in­ter­est. Her spouse also is the pres­i­dent and con­trol­ling in­ter­est holder of the firm.

The added pub­lic scru­tiny on the con­flict-of-in­ter­est is­sue has been driven by al­le­ga­tions re­lated to pen­sion leg­is­la­tion Morneau in­tro­duced in the House of Com­mons.

Op­po­nents al­lege the pen­sion re­form could ben­e­fit Morneau She­p­ell, a hu­man re­sources and pen­sion man­age­ment firm he helped build with his fa­ther be­fore en­ter­ing of­fice. Morneau main­tains he was never in a con­flict of in­ter­est.

In re­sponse to ac­cu­sa­tions that he’s per­son­ally prof­ited from de­ci­sions he’s taken as fi­nance min­is­ter, Morneau has promised to sell off $21 mil­lion worth of shares in his fam­ily’s com­pany and place the rest his sub­stan­tial as­sets in a blind trust.

Morneau also has promised to do­nate to char­ity any gains in the value of his Morneau She­p­ell shares since he was elected two years ago. The gains are es­ti­mated to be worth more than $5 mil­lion.

Daw­son rec­om­mended the screen for Morneau to pre­vent any ap­pear­ance of a con­flict of in­ter­est and main­tain the pub­lic’s con­fi­dence.

Her of­fice also con­firmed Mon­day that up to four cabi­net min­is­ters cur­rently hold con­trolled as­sets in­di­rectly, but would not share the names nor pro­vide a more-pre­cise num­ber.

The is­sue of in­di­rect hold­ings in a com­pany has been at the cen­tre of the de­bate around Morneau.

Daw­son urged the pre­vi­ous Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment in 2013 to amend the law to re­quire blind trusts for per­sonal as­sets owned by min­is­ters, re­gard­less of whether they were di­rectly or in­di­rectly owned — a change that was never made.

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