Inside Politics

Tories ask ethics watchdog to look into Pat Martin defence fund

Freshly by-elected Durham Conservative MP Erin O'Toole may have set a new record for the shortest time between arriving in the House of Commons, and filing an ethics complaint against one of his new colleagues. 

According to a release posted on the party-run website, the rookie backbencher is calling on Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson to "investigate a possible conflict of interest" related to the Pat Martin Defence Fund, which was set up last year in response to the robocalls-related defamation suit launched against him by RackNine Inc. 

In his letter, O'Toole alleges that "media reports have indicated" that the fund may have benefited from a $10,000 "gift" from a union -- a donation that, if made to a political party, riding association or candidate, would be prohibited under current election financing laws.

He also questions the appearance of the fund website, noting that it "appears to operate much like a political campaign site," as it "features the Member," mentions both the NDP and the 2011 election and "connects a political narrative to a solicitation for funds from people it describes as 'supporter.'"

You can read the full text of O'Toole's letter to the commissioner here (PDF).

Late last week, PostMedia reported that the lawsuit has been settled, although no further details have been -- and, given the nature of such matters, likely never will be -- released. Presumably, if that is indeed the case, the fund would be used to cover related costs, including whatever sum, if any, was agreed to as far as compensation as well as legal fees. 

We'll have to wait to see what, if anything, the commissioner does in response to the request.

In the interim, however, it seems worth pointing out that she gave Martin the go-ahead to launch the extraparliamentary fundraising campaign last year, on the condition that he "derive no income for the trust, including the disbursement of assets, for the purpose of financing a nomination contest, leadership race or electoral campaign."

Both the existence of the fund, and Dawson's order, were included in his most recent current disclosure summary

I am a beneficiary of the Pat Martin Defence Fund and am ordered, as required by paragraph 41.3 (1) (b) of the Parliament of Canada Act, by the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner not to derive any income from the trust, including disbursement of assets, for the purpose of financing a nomination contest, a leadership contest or an electoral campaign.
According to the website, "any surplus money raised ..  will be donated, in equal parts, to the Children's Wish Foundation and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights."

Even if the commissioner declined to take action, Martin might want to consider a public pledge to release the fund's financial reports after the case has been resolved, in order to assuage any concern that any undisclosed outpouring of generosity could potentially put him in a conflict of interest in future.

Given the sensitive nature of the information, the names of individual donors would likely have to be withheld, but there's no reason why the identities of labour unions, associations, or private corporations should be protected after the matter is no longer before the courts.

In any case, I've asked both the NDP and the commissioner's office for comment. If I hear back, I'll update this post.

UPDATE: In response to my query, NDP deputy national director Chantal Vallerand noted that the fund is managed by "a number of trustees, of which Mr. Martin is not one," and Revenue Canada and Elections Canada were also consulted before the fund was established "to ensure there would be no conflicts." 

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