New Democrat MP Tyrone Benskin broke the conflict of interest rules for parliamentarians by not declaring a tax debt, federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson says. (Tyrone Benskin/Facebook)

New Democrat MP Tyrone Benskin broke federal conflict of interest rules by not declaring a tax debt, Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson says in a letter to the politician. 

Dawson also uses the letter to renew her call for the power to levy fines against MPs who break the rules set out in the conflict of interest code.

In the letter to Benskin and to Liberal MP John McCallum, who made the complaint to the commissioner's office, Dawson says Benskin "has contravened his reporting obligations," as set out in the code.

MPs are required to disclose any liabilities worth more than $10,000. The commissioner's registry doesn't include the amount of the liabilities, just a searchable database of MPs, with an accompanying list detailing who they owe money to.

Last May, a media report revealed Benskin owed more than $58,000 to Revenue Quebec. That should have been disclosed, but wasn't, Dawson says in the letter. A Quebec court ruled June 19, 2012, that Benskin had to pay $54,719.99, plus costs, for a total of $58,097.45, she wrote.

Dawson notes that when MPs are found to have failed to report liabilities greater than $10,000, she has them sign a declaration "forthwith." Benskin updated his file on July 23.

'Unfortunate' filing was late

In an interview with CBC News, Benskin said he was having health problems at the time he should have updated his filing. There was also a problem figuring out deductions because he works in Ontario on Parliament Hill but lives in Quebec as the MP for Montreal's Jeanne-Le Ber riding, he said.

"It's unfortunate the timing was such that I couldn't or didn't file in a timely manner," he said.

The actual amount owed was less than $58,000, he said, but looks like more because of penalties applied by the Quebec court.

As far as Dawson is concerned, the matter is settled.

"In light of the fact that this has dealt with Mr. Benskin's failure to report his liability in an open and transparent manner, I have determined that an inquiry into this matter is not warranted," she wrote in the letter to Benskin and McCallum.

Dawson says she'd like to have the ability to charge MPs fines when they don't report properly, something she raised in a submission to the procedure and House affairs committee last January.

"In that submission I recommended that the code be amended to introduce administrative monetary penalties, up to a maximum of $500, for failures to meet reporting deadlines," she writes.

Benskin says he has no problem with Dawson's request for more power to penalize MPs who don't file on time.

"She [Dawson] has a hard job," he said, adding that she should get the powers "if she should need more teeth."