Finance Minister Bill Morneau waited two years to disclose a private corporation that owns a villa in southern France that he shares with his wife to Canada's ethics watchdog, CBC News has learned.
In fact, Morneau only disclosed the corporation to conflict of interest and ethics commissioner Mary Dawson's office after CBC News discovered its existence and began asking questions.
Morneau's office says the failure to disclose the company is the result of "early administrative confusion." Communications director Dan Lauzon said the villa was disclosed but the company was not.
Still, opposition critics say they are troubled by the finance minister's failure to fully disclose all of the private companies he owns.
"I guess that he expects us to believe that he's so rich that he just forgot that he has a private corporation in France and a wonderful villa in Provence," said Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre. "It's a little hard to believe."
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Morneau's disclosure came after a search by CBC News of corporate records in France revealed that Morneau is listed as a partner in the company SCI Mas des Morneau, which owns and manages a villa in the picturesque town of Oppède in France's Provence region.
Morneau's wife, Nancy McCain, a member of the wealthy family that owns McCain Foods, is named as a partner.
According to the Greffe du Tribunal de Commerce d'Avignon's registry, the company was incorporated on Aug. 17, 2007. Among the company's activities listed in the registry are real estate, rentals and leases.
Tax experts say there can be some advantages to holding real estate in France through a company such as Mas des Morneau, including avoiding inheritance tax. It is a completely legal and commonly used method.
But while Morneau has owned the company for a decade and was named finance minister two years ago, the company was only added to Morneau's ethics filings on Sept. 22 — as CBC News was pressing his office repeatedly for information about the company and why it did not appear in his public ethics declaration.
Dawson's office says MPs are supposed to disclose any private companies they own anywhere in the world. Any private companies that are disclosed to the ethics commissioner's office are listed in the public registry of ethics filings maintained by the office.
Some assets must be disclosed to the commissioner's office but are not listed in the public registry, such as an MP's family home or properties used primarily for recreation.
Jocelyne Brisebois, spokesperson for Dawson's office, said the ethics commissioner can fine a public office holder if she believes they have contravened the law. Under the Conflict of Interest Act, fines can range up to $500.
Brisebois said there is currently no examination or inquiry underway.
Since 2009, Dawson has fined four cabinet ministers $100 each for not disclosing changes to their assets within 30 days as required. One cabinet minister, Conservative Peter MacKay, was fined $200 twice for failing to provide a description of his assets while Liberal Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay was fined $200 in 2016 for failing to declare a gift he received within the deadline.
Lauzon, described Morneau's failure to initially declare the company as "early administrative confusion" when contacted by CBC News on Thursday.
"The SCI is related to a family property in France and is of a non-commercial nature," he said. "It's simply a legal structure, or an administrative vehicle to own and maintain the house, according to French law. It is the mechanism through which the property is owned."
Morneau's own financial affairs have been in the spotlight in recent weeks as the opposition has increased its attacks over his proposed changes to the tax rules that apply to private corporations.
The Conservatives have been pointing out in question period that Morneau's proposed tax changes will hit small businesses, farms and professionals like doctors but not large companies traded on the stock exchange like Morneau Shepell, a human resources company formerly headed by Morneau.
The proposed tax changes also won't affect Morneau's company in France. Finance Department spokesperson Jack Aubry said the proposed changes will not affect private corporations owned by Canadians that are incorporated in other countries.
Morneau's previous ethics declaration included joint or sole ownership of six other private numbered companies, some of which are associated with property in Florida.
New Democrat ethics critic Nathan Cullen says Dawson should "make an example" of Morneau's failure to disclose his company in Provence.
"The idea that the finance minister would have failed to disclose to the ethics commissioner and to all Canadians what businesses he actually had is incredibly worrisome," Cullen said.
"This is a big problem for me and I think it's going to be a problem for a lot of Canadians."
Cullen also contrasted Morneau's decision to hold the villa through a company, potentially saving his family money in the future on inheritance taxes, with the changes he is proposing to the tax rules governing private companies in Canada.
"Morneau seems to have set something up which makes it easier for him to pass on his wealth to his kids where they are proposing tax changes which make it harder for farmers to do the same thing."
Poilievre said the failure to report the corporation in France calls into question Morneau's personal credibility.
"Here he is storming across the country, lecturing our local businesses and family farmers, calling them tax cheats and saying they should pay more, and meanwhile,, he just forgot to mention that he has a private corporation in France that owns his villa."
Poilievre said it is important for cabinet ministers to fully disclose what they own.
"Ministers are supposed to report their assets so that Canadians can judge their interests and potential conflicts. These rules exist for a reason."
Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The headline on an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Bill Morneau failed to disclose his French villa to the ethics watchdog. In fact, the villa was disclosed but not the private company that owns the villa.Oct 13, 2017 9:40 AM ET