Ethics watchdog to question Justin Trudeau on 'concerns' about fundraising events
Mary Dawson says no evidence to date to demonstrate conflict of interest rules were broken
Canada's ethics watchdog wants to question Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about his attendance at so-called "cash-for-access" fundraising events, but she will not launch a formal investigation at this time.
In a letter responding to requests for an inquiry from the Conservatives and the NDP, Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson said there is no evidence to date that demonstrates Trudeau or Bill Blair, parliamentary secretary to the minister of Justice, violated the Conflict of Interest Act.
"While the information provided in support of the allegations is not sufficient to cause me to initiate an examination under the act at this time, your letter and media articles leave me with concerns in relation to Mr. Trudeau's interactions with individuals involved with the canola export agreement, Wealth One Bank, and Anbang Insurance Group," Dawson wrote to interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose.
"Consequently, I will follow up with Mr. Trudeau regarding his involvement with the fundraising events and with the three above-noted matters. I will inform you of the outcome in due course."
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Dawson was referring to events cited by the opposition parties and reported by the Globe and Mail and other media that took place in Vancouver and Toronto.
Those reports raised questions about various interactions between Trudeau and attendees, including Toronto businessman Thomas Liu, who has financial interest in canola exports to China, Shengling Xian, founder of Wealth One Bank of Canada, and Miaofei Pan, who told the Globe he spoke with Trudeau about foreign investment issues that could affect the Anbang Insurance Group.
No 'reasonable grounds'
Dawson also responded to a concern raised related to a fundraising event attended by Blair, who is the government's point man on legalization of marijuana. That event was also attended by people involved with the Cannabis Friendly Business Association.
But Dawson wrote that in order to establish "reasonable grounds" that Trudeau or Blair contravened the act, she would need information that indicates they "personally solicited" funds that would have placed them in a conflict of interest.
Asked about Dawson's letter today, Trudeau again defended his actions, insisting he is following the "very strict" rules around fundraising at the federal level. He said he looks forward to answering questions from Dawson or any other commissioner or official carrying out their responsibilities.
He was pressed by a reporter on how his actions of granting access to "rich people" who pay $1,500 to bend his ear squares with his own rules of not allowing preferential treatment or the perception of preferential treatment.
"The fact is, at the federal level our fundraising rules put very strict limits on personal donations. They have completely eliminated corporate and union donations, and there is absolute and total transparency for anyone who gives money to the federal level," Trudeau responded.
"Our commitment is to show the highest level of ethical standards, and that's exactly what we're doing."
But the Conservatives insist Trudeau isn't playing by his own rules, and hope the commissioner's line of questioning sheds more light on his fundraising activities.
"She had referred to this issue as being unsavoury in the past. We are glad she is going to be discussing this with the prime minister," said Ontario Conservative MP John Brassard. "I think when she digs deep, she's likely going to find something there."
$1,500 a ticket
Ambrose also wrote to Lobbying Commissioner Karen Shepherd asking her to investigate, but today she declined to say if she was undertaking any inquiry.
"The Lobbying Act requires the Commissioner to conduct all investigations and reviews in private. She has no further comment," reads a statement from her office.
Trudeau has been under daily fire for attending the $1,500-a-ticket Liberal Party fundraising events.
During a year-end news conference earlier this week, he conceded that while issues came up in conversation, paying participants hold no special sway on government policy.
Trudeau insisted he will answer questions or listen to anyone who wants to speak with him about issues that are important to them.
"The fact is, my approach continues to be to listen broadly through every possible opportunity I get and make the right decisions based on what's best for Canada," he said.
"I can say that in various Liberal Party events, I listen to people, as I will in any given situation, but the decisions I make in government are ones based on what is right for Canadians, not on what an individual at a fundraiser might say."
Late Thursday, PMO spokesman Cameron Ahmad confirmed by email that Trudeau's office had received the letter from Dawson.
"We look forward to responding to the commissioner and ensuring that we continue to answer questions as we would from any officer of Parliament," said Ahmad.
"It should be noted that the commissioner has not specifically requested a meeting, but instead has asked for some additional information which we are happy to provide," he added.