Helena Guergis broke ethics rules, watchdog says

Former Conservative MP Helena Guergis broke ethics rules when she wrote a recommendation for a constituent whose business was linked to her husband's, the federal ethics commissioner says.
Helena Guergis speaks to reporters in Collingwood, Ont., April 15, blaming Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office for orchestrating a smear campaign that got her ousted from cabinet and caucus. Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson said Thursday Guergis broke ethics rules with a 2009 letter she wrote for a constituent linked to her husband's business interests. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

Former Conservative MP Helena Guergis broke ethics rules when she wrote a recommendation for a constituent whose business was linked to her husband's, Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson says in a report released Thursday.

Guergis wrote a letter in 2009 to the town council of Simcoe, Ont., suggesting they look at a green waste-disposal company owned by one of her constituents. Guergis's husband, former Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer, had business interactions with Jim Wright, the constituent.

Dawson says that violated the code of conduct that governs MPs' ethics, but not the law, which would have resulted in a fine for Guergis. The ethics commissioner can recommend sanctions for breaches of the code of ethics, but doesn't mention any sanctions in her report.

"I concluded that Ms. Guergis contravened section eight of the code by sending the letter relating to Wright Tech, because she was acting in a way to further Mr. Jaffer's private interests," Dawson writes.

Guergis breached the sections that prohibit MPs from furthering their private interests or those of a family member, using their position to influence a decision regarding their interest or a family member's, and a related section on engaging in a prohibited activity, Dawson says. 

Dawson writes that Guergis said she asked Jaffer "on a number of occasions" whether he was or would be doing business with Wright.

"This indicates that she was aware that there was an issue… Ms. Guergis had the right instincts in raising the concerns with her husband but she should not have let the matter go at that."

Guergis testified she saw Wright's technology as an alternative to a municipal plan she opposed, the report says.

"I believe that this was indeed a significant part of her motivation," Dawson wrote.

A statement from Guergis's lawyer says that conclusion is consistent with what Guergis has said since the issue first came up.

"While we accept that the commissioner found a technical conflict of interest, we are pleased that she accepted and found support for Ms. Guergis' position that this was not her purpose in sending the letter, and that she sent it based on her understanding at the time that there would be no conflict," Howard Rubel wrote in an email.

Dawson's recommendations come out of a complaint by NDP MP Libby Davies, who noted the link between Wright Tech and Jaffer.

NDP MP Jack Harris says Canadians have to take a good hard look at the office of the ethics commissioner.

"The findings are almost fairly obvious," Harris told Evan Solomon on CBC's Power & Politics. "It doesn't take a year to figure out what was fairly obvious, and those findings, and those conclusions don't take a year on a topic as hot as that."

"[The Conservatives] knew that Rahim Jaffer was around the offices all the time, that he was using the office, using the contacts," he added.


Dawson's report says there are inconsistencies and gaps in witness testimony. Guergis and Jaffer, she says, seemed to have difficulty remembering details related to the letter, though she notes the most of the interviews happened a year after Guergis sent the letter.

Some inconsistencies were minor, Dawson says, but "it appeared, at times, that these witnesses were not entirely forthcoming, but were possibly influenced by a desire to protect another person."

The interviewees included Guergis and Jaffer, Guergis's then executive assistant, Wright, and some of Jaffer's business associates, including his partner Patrick Glémaud, friend Aleem Lakhani, who introduced Jaffer to Wright, and Nazim Gillani, who was working with Wright to find funding for Wright Tech.

Dawson says there were significant delays in her investigation because of rules about MP email and documents saved on the House of Commons server. Her office didn't have direct access to Guergis's email and documents – Guergis and Rubel vetted everything.

Dawson also says she wasn't satisfied with the search parameters and still isn't sure she's seen all the relevant documents.

In a separate case in which Dawson found no evidence of wrongdoing, Prime Minister Stephen Harper kicked Guergis out of her cabinet post and out of the Conservative Party caucus in 2010 after a series of negative news stories about her behaviour and Jaffer's business dealings. At the time, Harper told reporters he'd referred allegations about Guergis to Dawson.

Dawson says the letter from Harper's office contained no specific information and didn't request an investigation. She says she contacted a private investigator Harper referred her to, who said he had made no allegations against Guergis. In the absence of any information, Dawson writes that she didn't pursue the issue.

"My office found no evidence in the course of this inquiry to indicate that there were additional matters relating to Ms. Guergis' conduct that warranted investigation under the Act,"  Dawson wrote in her report.

Guergis ran for re-election as an independent candidate, but didn't win her seat in the May 2 election.