Finance Minister Bill Morneau's actions related to the introduction of a pensions bill are being examined by Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson to see if they violated the Conflict of Interest Act.
"I am of the view that I have reasonable grounds to commence an examination under subsection 45(1), and have so informed Minister Morneau," Dawson said in a letter to Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre.
Dawson initiated the examination after Conservative finance critic Poilievre, and NDP MP Nathan Cullen wrote to the commissioner earlier this fall asking her to look into the finance minister's role in the bill.
In an Oct. 16 letter Cullen asked Dawson to look into Morneau's sponsorship of Bill C-27; done while he still owned shares in his family's pension company, Morneau Shepell.
Cullen argued that, because Morneau held about one million shares at the time, he could make millions if the bill passed.
Poilievre had asked Dawson to investigate whether Morneau violated both the Conflict of Interest Act (which applies to cabinet ministers) and the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons (which applies to all MPs).
But in her letter to Poilievre on Friday, Dawson said she would only examine Morneau's actions under the former.
The ethics watchdog also told Poilievre that, even though he did not specify what specific area of the act may have been violated, she decided she had enough information to launch her own examination.
Dogged by controversy
Morneau has been dogged by controversy over his ownership of the company's shares and his use of private corporations to hold his assets — including one he failed to declare until September, which holds a villa in France. Morneau agreed to pay a $200 fine for failing to declare the company that owns the villa to Dawson when he was elected.
The finance minister met last month with the conflict of interest commissioner about the ownership of the one million shares which are worth about $20 million. After that meeting he announced he was placing his assets in a blind trust and was divesting shares in his family-built company to calm a growing ethics controversy over his personal holdings
"I told her it was the intent of my family to donate any difference in value from my family shares from the time I was elected on Oct. 19, 2015, until now," he told the House of Commons.
Morneau has said. he doesn't know what the value of the proceeds will be yet.
Problem of his own making
"I think its pretty simple," said Poilievre. "Bill Morneau owned shares in a company that administers pensions and he introduced a bill as finance minister on pensions. That's an obvious red flag. He should have had better judgement and he's put himself in a terrible situation."
The Conservative MP said that if the examination proves Morneau is in a legal conflict interest he should pay a steep political price for his actions, but for now, Poilievre stopped short of asking for Morneau's resignation.
"This is the man with whom we entrust $330 billion of our money every single year. Someone like that needs to have impeccable judgement," he said in an interview with CBC News.
"Bill Morneau has shown horrible judgement."
Cullen said says he can't understand why Morneau would sponsor a pension bill when he was a major shareholder in a pension company.
"He's in trouble and it's trouble that is of his own making. These are all choices that he made along the way that common sense should have told him would have been a bad idea," Cullen told CBC.
Chloé Luciani-Girouard, Morneau's press secretary, said the minister will co-operate fully with Dawson's office.
"Since the first day in Office, the minister of finance has worked with the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner and followed her recommendations and advice Including having a screen in place that was determined to be the 'best measure of compliance by the commissioner,'" Luciani-Girouard said in a statement.
"In this spirit, the minister will answer any questions the commissioner has on this matter."