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Pointed questions are beginning to swirl around Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's chief of staff, and whether he used his position to further the financial interests of friends at Barrick Gold Corp.
Ethics commissioner Mary Dawson is following up with Wright after the disclosure that he was lobbied twice by Barrick, the world's largest gold producer, in May.
Wright has known Barrick founder and board chairman Peter Munk for years and is particularly close to his son, Anthony, who sits on Barrick's board of directors.
Indeed, in a 2011 magazine article, Peter Munk disclosed that Wright is godfather to Anthony Munk's son. Wright worked with Anthony at Onex Corp., the private equity investment giant from which Wright has taken a leave of absence to work for Harper.
Wright also served as a director on the board of the Aurea Foundation, a charitable foundation established by Peter Munk and his wife in 2006 to support the study and development of public policy. He resigned from the board shortly before joining Harper's office in November 2010.
In a story in the April 2011 edition of The Walrus, Peter Munk lavished praise on Wright.
"I'd rank Nigel Wright among the mere handful of people I've met in whom I have complete trust," Munk was quoted as saying. "He's just one of those rare human beings with whom you feel totally comfortable in seeking an opinion or discussing complex issues, on any subject."
According to a report summary filed by Barrick with the federal lobbying commissioner, someone from the company — the report does not identify who — contacted Wright on May 14 to discuss international relations and international trade.
Nine days later, a second report indicates, Barrick talked to Wright again on the same subject matter — this time along with Harper's foreign policy adviser, Andrea van Vugt, and his principal secretary, Ray Novak, who is Harper's point man on government-to-government relations.
Barrick's contact with Wright came shortly after Harper blocked a resolution on Argentina's claim to the Falkland Islands during the Summit of the Americas in Colombia in mid-April. The Globe and Mail reported at the time that Harper's stance infuriated Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who stormed out of the conference, muttering, "This is pointless. Why did I even come here?"
Barrick operates a mine in Argentina and is developing another controversial open pit gold and silver mine that straddles the border between Chile and Argentina.
Companies were "freaked out" that Harper's performance at the Summit of the Americas was making it harder for them to obtain permits from the Argentine government for their mining operations, said New Democrat MP and ethics critic Charlie Angus.
"What I was told was Canadian permitting suddenly got a lot more difficult, that there was an immediate blow-back on Canadian mining interests," Angus said.
"We don't know what was said at the meeting (with Wright). But we know what the interests were for Barrick, " he added.
"There would have been an obvious reason they would want to meet ... They're interested in getting permitting for a very controversial mine site and they don't need the prime minister making waves."
The NDP is contemplating a formal complaint with the ethics commissioner's office, Angus said, adding that Wright should not have participated in any discussion involving Barrick, regardless of the subject matter, given his relationship with the Munks.
"He has very close personal relations, they have a huge financial stake and he is the chief adviser to the prime minister. He needs to recuse himself. That's what the Conflict of Interest Act calls for."
The ethics commissioner's office appeared to be unaware of the matter until contacted by The Canadian Press.
"We will follow up with Mr. Wright," said Margot Booth, spokesperson for Dawson's office. "Beyond that, the office cannot comment on individual cases."
Asked about the propriety of Wright being lobbied by Barrick given his ties to the Munk family, Andrew MacDougall, Harper's communications director, would say only: "Mr. Wright did not take part in any decision with respect to Barrick Gold."
MacDougall declined to discuss publicly the subject of Barrick's lobbying.
Barrick spokesperson Andy Lloyd did not respond to a request for further information about who lobbied Wright and the precise subject matter. He confirmed that the lobbying report summaries were accurate and noted that Barrick "is registered to lobby on various matters that affect our business."
"All of our lobbying activities are carried out in accordance with the regulations," Lloyd added in an email.
A person doesn't necessarily need to be involved in actual decision-making to wind up in a conflict of interest.
Under the Conflict of Interest Act, a public office holder is supposed to recuse himself or herself from "any discussion, decision, debate or vote on any matter" which could result in a conflict.
The act describes conflict of interest as the exercise of "an official power, duty or function that provides (the public office holder) an opportunity to further his or her private interests or those of his or her relatives or friends or to improperly further another person's private interests."
On the advice of the federal ethics watchdog, Wright set up a "conflict of interest screen" when he joined the Prime Minister's Office. The screen is meant to ensure that Wright abstains from any participation in matters relating to Onex, its subsidiaries and affiliates or even involving general policy matters, such as tax treatment of the private equity industry, that could affect Onex.
The question now is whether Wright should also have recused himself from discussions involving Barrick.
Harper, when he was in opposition, used to rail against cronyism in the PMO, Angus said.
"It was always this thing of who you know in the PMO and that's what Mr. Harper said he was going to change. And yet, time and time and time again when there's ethics issues, they just shrug them off."