Bill Morneau asks to meet with ethics watchdog as controversy swirls

Finance Minister Bill Morneau has asked for a meeting with the conflict of interest commissioner in the wake of an escalating controversy about whether his personal wealth is being ethically managed given his cabinet role.

Finance minister 'absolutely not' reconsidering his career in politics

While delivering remarks at a kitchen counter factory in Montreal on Tuesday, Finance Minister Bill Morneau said he'd be willing to make changes to his financial affairs if asked to do so by the federal ethics watchdog. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Finance Minister Bill Morneau has asked for a meeting with the conflict of interest commissioner in the wake of an escalating controversy about whether his personal wealth is being ethically managed given his cabinet role.

CBC News first reported that for two years Morneau failed to disclose to the federal ethics commissioner that he and his wife are partners in the private company that owns a family villa. Then the Globe and Mail reported that Morneau hasn't put his assets into a blind trust.

In a letter to Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson dated Tuesday, Morneau wrote that he has followed her recommendations "diligently," but "these recommendations have recently been the subject of increased public scrutiny."

"Should you determine that additional measures — such as a blind trust — would be an appropriate course of action, I would be pleased and eager to move forward on any revised recommendations you might provide," Morneau wrote.

Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson leaves after appearing as a witness at a Commons committee on Parliament Hill on Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The day he was named to cabinet in November 2015, Morneau told CBC News he had communicated with the ethics commissioner about his holdings in Morneau Shepell, the human resources and pension management company his father founded. Morneau said he expected to put them in a blind trust, much as former prime minister Paul Martin put Canada Steamship Lines in a blind trust when he served as finance minister.

On Tuesday, Dawson said she told Morneau that he didn't need a blind trust.

"I told him that it wasn't required," she told reporters. "I took a look at what he disclosed, and according to what was disclosed, and which I do for everybody, I make a judgment as to what's necessary."

Morneau hasn't answered questions about what he did with his company shares.

Dawson refused to comment on the specifics of Morneau's holdings, but explained that the Conflict of Interest Act requires that "controlled assets" — those that are directly held by a public office holder —  be placed in a blind trust.

"So sometimes the asset is not directly held, and our act covers things that are directly held."

When asked if the act should be stricter, Dawson said she has "98 suggestions."

Conflict of interest raised 

Both opposition parties are using parliamentary manoeuvres to attack Morneau, questioning whether his personal wealth is being ethically managed given his cabinet role.

The Conservative Party devoted Tuesday's opposition day to a motion calling on Morneau to table all the documents he has filed to Dawson since taking office on Nov. 4, 2015, until mid-July, when his party introduced its proposed tax changes.

The government's changes attempt to close loopholes that allow the wealthy to use incorporation as a small business to reduce their income tax. Doctors, small businesses owners, farmers, premiers and even some Liberal backbenchers have criticized the proposals, arguing they'd hurt the middle class.

The Opposition motion, backed by shadow finance minister Pierre Poilievre, points to "accusations by experts" that Morneau stands to benefit from the government-introduced tax changes through his family business, the human resources company Morneau Shepell.

"If he knows what assets he holds, why not just tell Canadians?" Poilievre asked Tuesday.

Conservative MPs Pierre Poilievre and Gerard Deltell call on the Finance Minister to reveal all of his holdings to prove that there is no conflict. 1:56

"Common sense would dictate that these kinds of interests and these kinds of powers should be absolutely transparent," he said

Asked whether Morneau's assets should be placed into a blind trust if he reveals them, Poilievre said "we'll know when we see them."

Opposition days, officially called allotted or supply days, give the opposition parties the chance several times each sitting to set the subject of debate. However, the motion would likely be non-binding.

NDP sends letter to ethics watchdog 

The NDP ethics critic, Nathan Cullen, has sent a letter to Dawson asking for a formal investigation into Morneau's holdings and lack of a blind trust.

Cullen alleges there's "substantial evidence" Morneau is profiting from decisions he's made in cabinet, particularly as sponsor of Bill C-27, which deals with target pension plans.

"The appearance of conflict of interest is worrisome. It's shocking," said Cullen.

"Years from now when you look through the political handbook of Canada, right beside the definition of conflict of interest will be a picture of Mr. Morneau."

Cullen's letter isn't the only one on Dawson's desk.

Conservative MP Peter Kent has asked her to take a closer look at SCI Mas des Morneau, a company incorporated in France that owns and manages Morneau's villa in the picturesque town of Oppède in France's Provençe region.

The NDP's Nathan Cullen says Finance Minister Bill Morneau appears to be in a conflict of interest 1:03

During a news conference Tuesday in Montreal, Morneau was asked if the escalating ethics controversy had him reconsidering his career in politics.

"Absolutely not," the former businessman said in French.

"I know that we still have things to do and, for me, I have a great privilege to have the opportunity to be with a team that will do very important things for people here, for the rest of our country. I would like to continue with this work."

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With files from Elizabeth Thompson and The Canadian Press

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