By STEPHEN MAHER Ottawa Bureau The Chronicle Herald
OTTAWA — Federal ethics commissioner Mary Dawson appears to have invented a secret bureaucratic process to avoid posting public disclosure statements by ministers who are in conflicts of interest, say the Liberal and NDP ethics critics and a government watchdog group.
They say Dawson’s handling of a conflict of interest case involving Fisheries Minister Gail Shea raises questions about the Federal Accountability Act and about Dawson, the person charged with making sure that MPs, ministers and senior public servants follow the rules on ethics in conducting public business.
The Chronicle Herald reported Monday that Shea did not file a public recusal statement declaring her conflict of interest in dealing with a federal grant worth $10 million to $20 million for a wind farm to be built by the Wind Energy Institute of Canada — headed by her son-in-law, Scott Harper.
In question period on Monday, Shea said she disclosed the relationship to Dawson.
“Upon being elected in 2008, I did disclose my relationship to the ethics commissioner,” she said. “I have followed the advice of the commissioner. The allegations in the media are baseless and they are unfounded.”
But there is no record of a public recusal statement in the government registry. The Federal Accountability Act requires that a minister in a potential conflict “make a public declaration of the recusal that provides sufficient detail to identify the conflict of interest that was avoided.”
In an email on Monday, a spokeswoman for Dawson said the commissioner regularly reaches arrangements with holders of public office to avoid public recusals.
“Doing so can preclude the need for recusal and thus the need to make a public declaration,” Margaret Booth said.
New Democrat MP Pat Martin, who worked closely with the Conservatives to pass the accountability act, giving the government the opposition support it needed to get the bill through committee, said he can’t believe the commissioner isn’t following the act’s clear intent — public disclosure of conflicts.
“That’s not satisfactory at all and that’s really contrary to the intent of the law that I thought we passed,” he said Monday. “In fact, I’m offended and angry that there’s a built-in escape measure to avoid transparency of registered recusal. We thought we were putting in place a surefire mechanism to make conflict of interest public.”
Martin said he is wondering whether voting in favour of the act was a mistake.
“I’m starting to think I got duped,” he said.
Liberal ethics critic Marlene Jennings said Dawson has created a secretive process that gets around the clearly spelled out rules requiring public disclosure.
“It looks exactly as though the ethics commissioner has created a process for recusal that has nothing to do with the actual statute,” she said. “She’s covering her derriere and theirs.”
Duff Conacher of the government watchdog group Democracy Watch said the practice of avoiding public recusal disclosures is “further evidence of how negligent and ineffective this ethics commissioner is.”
He pointed out that no recusal statement is on file for Helena Guergis, the minister for the status of women who was fired Friday, allegedly after the Prime Minister’s Office was advised of serious criminal misconduct.
“She should have had a blanket recusal statement on her registry as well,” Conacher said, because her husband, former Edmonton MP Rahim Jaffer, was openly seeking business based on his knowledge of, and connections to, the Conservative government.
“If there isn’t, it’s just another example of where she’s just failing to take the right steps so the public knows when the minister’s in a conflict,” Conacher said.
Martin said the accountability act should have led to a public disclosure of Shea’s conflict.
“If Minister Shea is in compliance with the act, then there’s something fundamentally wrong with the act because we still can’t find open disclosure of potential conflict,” he said.
“What could be more obvious than your son-in-law being in the God damned business? Let’s face it. The public has the right to know those things.”