The body that oversees federally appointed judges in Canada has launched an investigation into three judges after revelations on CBC's the fifth estate and Radio-Canada's Enquête last week.

The Canadian Judicial Council began the review following the documentaries that showed two judges attending evening social events during a KPMG-sponsored tax conference in Madrid last fall. A third judge, the chief justice of the Tax Court of Canada, was revealed making a speech in which he promoted drinking alcohol with the tax industry.

"I decided that it was important to initiate a review of the situation," Norman Sabourin, executive director of the council, said Tuesday, citing "potential conflict of interest."

Norman Sabourin

Norman Sabourin, executive director of the Canadian Judicial Council, says he 'decided that it was important to initiate a review of the situation.' (CBC)

In an exclusive interview, Sabourin told the fifth estate that he launched two investigations after watching the CBC coverage. A further investigation into a third judge was launched after a complaint was received from the public.

The judges under review are Eugene Rossiter, chief justice of the Tax Court of Canada; Randall Bocock, a Tax Court of Canada judge; and Denis Pelletier, a judge with the Federal Court of Appeal, which hears appeals of tax court cases.

the fifth estate called and emailed the Tax Court of Canada and the Federal Court of Appeal for comment on the investigation. By Tuesday evening, CBC received no response.

"I think in the public interest and for the judge's own interest, it's good for the council to shed light on the situation, to review the issue and to come to a decision as to whether or not there is a potential misconduct there," Sabourin said. "I think the public expects things will be reviewed diligently."

  • For tips on this story, email investigations@cbc.ca or phone Harvey Cashore at 416-526-4704

Is there a conflict of interest?

Sabourin told CBC News he has already informed the three judges of the review process, described by the council as an initial "investigation."

That investigation, which could take up to two months, could end there or, if unresolved, the matter could be referred to a special review panel.

Sabourin cautioned there are "benefits" in judges attending educational tax conferences. The judicial council itself signed off on the Madrid conference. He said concerns relate to the judges attending evening social events.

"I think now we delve into the area of potential conflict of interest. And again, I can't comment on specific cases, and that's why we need to do a review in this particular instance to find out all the facts, to find out if there is a possibility of a conflict of interest."

Eugene RossiterTax Court of Canada

Eugene Rossiter, chief justice of the Tax Court of Canada, will name Randall Bocock’s replacement in the trial into a KPMG tax plan used by wealthy Canadians. Rossiter had previously defended Bocock’s activities in Madrid where he attended social events during a KPMG-linked tax conference. (Tax Court of Canada)

At a recent tax conference in Calgary, Rossiter defended the practice of judges on his tax court drinking alcohol at evening social events with tax industry officials.

"We will have coffee and we will have pizza and we will have wine and lots of it," he said before hundreds of accountants, lawyers and other members of the tax industry from across Canada.

Sabourin declined to comment on those remarks, except to say that chief justices in particular have a duty to "set ethical aspirations."

"Chief justices of course are considered to be role models. They are the members of the Canadian Judicial Council. They set the ethical aspirations for judges collectively."

He said there can be occasions when judges and lawyers get together for drinks without there being anything inappropriate.

'Good exchanges can take place'

"If the wine at some point is paid by the bar, the next day is paid by the bench, these are normal gatherings where good exchanges can take place."

At an international tax conference in Madrid last fall, CBC cameras captured one of Rossiter's judges, Randall Bocock, attending an evening soiree on a rooftop terrace sponsored by a law firm linked to KPMG.

Justice Randall Bocock

Justice Randall Bocock travelled to Madrid last year to attend conference put on by the International Fiscal Association. (CBC)

Bocock is the case management judge in a KPMG-related file involving a tax dodge the accounting firm set up in the Isle of Man. The Canada Revenue Agency alleges in court documents that scheme is a "sham" that "intended to deceive" the federal treasury.  

The law firm hosting the Madrid party, Dentons, is named in those court documents as allegedly signing off on the KPMG tax dodge before it was sold to wealthy Canadians.

Bocock is currently the case management judge in the Vancouver tax court case and will likely not be the judge presiding over the actual trial. No trial date has been set.

Dennis Pelletier

Federal Court of Appeal Judge Denis Pelletier is seen exiting Madrid’s Prado Museum. (CBC)

Pelletier was also at the KPMG-sponsored conference. CBC footage shows him attending a social event at the Prado Museum.

Pelletier initially denied attending any of the conference's evening social events. The Federal Court of Appeal later clarified that there had been a "miscommunication" and that he did in fact attend.

  • For tips on this story, email investigations@cbc.ca or phone Harvey Cashore at 416-526-4704