Alberta’s ethics commissioner has cleared independent Edmonton MLA Peter Sandhu of conflict of interest in two cases spawned by CBC News investigations involving unreported liabilities and improper lobbying.
The ethics commissioner’s released his report a day after another CBC News investigation revealed close associates of Sandhu had allegedly orchestrated a smear campaign against a local Punjabi journalist who had reported on Sandhu’s debt problems. Sandhu has denied any involvement in that alleged scheme.
- Edmonton MLA lobbied to benefit own home-building company
A member of Premier Alison Redford’s transition team, Edmonton lawyer James Heelan, represented Sandhu for both conflict complaints.
Sandhu, the member for Edmonton Manning, withdrew from the Progressive Conservative caucus in May after CBC reported his house building company had been sued several times for unpaid debts, which he had failed to disclose to the ethics commissioner as required by law. The story also revealed Sandhu had sworn a false affidavit in a civil court case.
In September, CBC News reported that Sandhu had persistently lobbied senior executives within Service Alberta to change Alberta’s Builders' Lien Act. The executives had on more than one occasion asked Sandhu to produce proof that he was acting on behalf of the house-building industry.
Sandhu breached act
Ethics Commissioner Neil Wilkinson found Sandhu had failed to disclose six court actions. But he noted all the cases were settled shortly after Sandhu filed his annual member disclosure report.
Wilkinson accepted Sandhu’s explanation that he had not disclosed the actions because he considered them settled, and had received legal advice that the lawsuits were nearing settlement.
“I find there was no malfeasance on the part of Member Sandhu in any of these instances; there was no deliberate attempt to conceal actions for some underlying reason. (Sandhu’s lawyer) Mr. (James) Heelan characterized the Member Sandhu’s behaviour as “an oversight,” but I find it was a mistake,” the report states.
“Whether by oversight or mistake, I conclude Member Sandhu’s six failures to disclose were each an individual breach of the Act,” Wilkinson wrote. “Member Sandhu indicates he 'has learned his lesson.' I have no doubt this is true.”
The disclosure reports represent the only means by which the public, and opposition parties, can determine if an MLA might have a potential conflict.
Wilkinson said Sandhu had done the “right and honourable thing” by bringing the matter to the ethics commissioner, found it to be a mitigating factor, and ruled no sanction was warranted.
Sandhu brought the matter to the commissioner’s attention on May 13th, the day before CBC published and broadcast its story and several days after CBC had contacted Sandhu for an interview.
Wilkinson's ruling was met with dismay by opposition parties.
"This ruling has made the conflicts of interest law a total joke," said MLA Shayne Saskiw, Wildrose Party justice critic.
"The interpretation is now to protect the political interests of MLAs rather than protecting the integrity of our legislature."
"The whole idea of conflict of interest -- somebody advocating for themselves using their office as an MLA -- that whole thing has been blown apart by this decision. And no one wins from that," added NDP MLA David Eggen.
Sandhu declined a request for an interview Thursday, but stated on his Twitter account that he believes his name has been cleared.
Lobbying 'ill-advised' but not improper
The CBC News stories in September about Sandhu’s persistent and improper lobbying were based on documents obtained through Freedom of Information, CBC sought those documents after receiving tips from Service Alberta staff about Sandhu’s improper lobbying.
Wilkinson ruled Sandhu’s “actions may have been ill-advised, but they were not improper.”
Wilkinson said that even if Sandhu had improperly lobbied, the MLA would had to have been lobbying to further his own private interest, or the interest of another person, for his actions to be a breach of the Act.
The commissioner found the changes to the Builders’ Lien Act sought by Sandhu through his lobbying would affect all aspects of the construction industry.
“Member Sandhu’s persistence in this matter created an appearance of conflict of interest but did not amount to an improper use of his office,” Wilkinson wrote. “Had his persistence been directed at encouraging government officials to take action which only affected NewView Homes, there would be no doubt that he would be in breach of section 3 of the Act. But that is not the case and there is therefore no actual breach.”
It is still not known when, or if, Sandhu, will return to the Conservative caucus. Sandhu was first elected in 2008.