Inside Politics

Ethics watchdog clears senior civil servant of conflict

Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson has cleared outgoing Defence deputy minister Robert Fonberg of conflict of interest over his involvement in an interdepartmental dispute over $800,000 in project funding for an international non-profit group run by a former civil service colleague.

The events reviewed by the commissioner, took place in 2007, when Fonberg was Senior Associate Secretary of the Treasury Board, and centred on a disagreement between Foreign Affairs and Treasury Board officials over the process for allocating new money to the Forum of Federations, which had an existing funding arrangement with the department.

From the report: "It was alleged that Mr. Fonberg became involved in this matter after he was approached by the Forum of Federations' President and CEO at the time, Mr. George Anderson. According to the disclosure, Mr. Fonberg had identified himself as a former colleague, former subordinate and friend of Mr. Anderson's."

Dawson found that, despite the "personal and professional relationship" shared between Fonberg and Anderson, the two were not "friends' within the meaning of the [Conflict of Interest Act]," and though she notes that such intervention by a senior Treasury Board official appears to be "rare" -- even Fonberg himself was unable to come up with another instance in which he was so closely involved in discussions -- they "do occasionally take place," and there are no rules forbidding such communications with a third-party beneficiary.

As for the decision on the $800,000 in funding -- and specifically, whether a new submission was required for the payment to be authorized -- Dawson points out that it was made after Fonberg left Treasury Board.

"There is no evidence that [he] committed to or pushed for a particular outcome, nor is there evidence that he left instructions with Treasury Board Secretariat officials regarding this file when he departed for his current post at the Department of National Defence," she concludes.

For his part, Fonberg told the commissioner that, in his opinion, "he was never in a conflict of interest, as "he did not have a personal interest in the matter and there was never an improper furtherance of the private interests of another person."

He assured Dawson that his former colleague "was afforded the same treatment as [he] would afford any senior stakeholder who had a legitimate concern that [he]viewed as appropriate for consideration by himself or senior management in his organization. 

Read the full report here: 

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