Ethics watchdog condemns former minister, NDP piles on

The federal ethics watchdog has determined former cabinet minister Jay Hill breached the Conflict of Interest Act when he contacted his ex-colleagues about a forthcoming multinational energy deal.

Jay Hill breached Conflict of Interest Act by contacting politicians about oil patch deal

Ethics commissioner says former Conservative MP Jay Hill used his former position to assist his spouse and her employer regarding a forthcoming energy deal. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The federal ethics watchdog has determined former cabinet minister Jay Hill breached the Conflict of Interest Act when he contacted his ex-colleagues about a forthcoming multinational energy deal.

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson says Hill breached a section of the act which prohibits former public office-holders from taking improper advantage of their previous office.

Hill contacted cabinet ministers in late May 2011 about an impending oil patch deal between Progress Energy and Malaysian oil giant Petronas to share the ownership and development of three shale gas sites in northeastern British Columbia, and to export natural gas to Malaysia.

In a statement provided to CBC News, Hill writes that the deal "represented approximately $1B in natural gas reserves located in my former constituency in northern B.C. and was to be announced to the public within days."

Position used to ‘facilitate access’

In politics, perception is reality... I strongly dispute this conclusion

At the time, Hill’s wife, Leah Murray, worked for National Public Relations, a firm that had drafted a communications plan for the deal.

The report says Hill, born in Fort St. John, B.C., and MP for the Prince George–Peace River riding from 1993 to 2010, used his former position to "facilitate access" to the ministers on behalf of his spouse and her employer.

During the investigation, Hill maintained that he only wanted to give his former colleagues a heads-up about the impending multi-million-dollar deal.

Hill's statement says doing this "is a common practice in government, as ministers and senior staff are often given advance notice of pending deals or business negotiations."

But Dawson disputed that claim in her report.

"Mr. Hill described these calls to the ministers as simple heads-up calls," she wrote.

"The evidence, however, shows that he went further. [International Trade] Minister [Ed] Fast told me that Mr. Hill had requested that he call Progress Energy."

Questions about Conservative Party 

Former Conservative MP Jay Hill left politics on Oct. 4, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Dawson also pointed to other evidence, including testimony from Industry Minister Christian Paradis, who said Hill suggested that he, too, call the company.

And although witness testimony differed slightly, Dawson concluded that Hill’s calls were intended to assist his spouse in carrying out one of the steps identified in the strategic communications plan developed by her employer.

"His calls increased the likelihood that Ms. Murray and her employer would succeed in implementing some of the objectives of the strategic communications plan," Dawson’s report said.

"Mr. Hill therefore acted in a manner as to take improper advantage of his previous public office as leader of the government in the House of Commons, and thereby contravened section 33."

Hill told CBC News that "at no time did I or my spouse receive any credit, benefit or financial remuneration, personally or professionally, for making these calls."

"In politics, perception is reality," Hill continued.  "I strongly dispute this conclusion, and the process and methods she undertook to arrive at her decision."

Hill's statement also apologized to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his former colleagues for "any inconvenience this situation may have caused."

Another mistake by Paradis?

After the NDP's weekly caucus meeting on Wednesday, B.C. MP Peter Julian said the findings were "just another example of a Conservative insider getting an inside track on these kinds of issues."

Julian singled out Hill's contact with Paradis, who was warned by the ethics watchdog last summer in one of a series of ethical issues that have plagued his time in cabinet.

"[The Petronas takeover] is a particularly contentious issue... it was badly mishandled by the Conservative government from the very beginning," Julian said.  "Here's another case where Mr. Paradis receives an insider call and this seems to be happening systematically."

Julian said the government's response to the report has been inadequate, and said Harper needs to take stronger action on ethics issues in his cabinet, nothing this is "not the first time Paradis has shown questionable ethics on issues concerning his department."

"He knows the guidelines and knows what the appropriate response should have been," Julian said.

Speaking after his final day as interim Liberal leader, Bob Rae was less harsh, saying he respected Hill and had "no reason to doubt his integrity or sincerity."

Rae reminded reporters that the commissioner found Hill had no financial interest at stake.

"I think it's a message to every one of us in the House that we have to continue to be very careful... we have to accept the rules."

During Wednesday's question period, Ontario NDP MP Charlie Angus asked why Paradis, Fast and then-Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan didn't immediately report Hill to the ethics commissioner.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement said that it was members of the Conservative caucus who had reported this case to Dawson's office. He touted the Harper government's 2006 Accountability Act, and noted the stronger lobbying rules brought in since the Conservatives came to power.

"We're acting by our own rules. I wish they'd do the same thing," Clement said.

With files from CBC News