Inside Politics

Details of NDP MP's defence fund bolster case for MP conflict code review

At the risk of becoming downright obsessive on the subject, it seems to me that the newly disclosed list of donors who gave more than $500 to New Democrat MP Pat Martin's legal defence fund highlights one area that MPs might want to study when they eventually get around to conducting that now overdue 5-year review of the Commons conflict of interest code.

As reported by the Ottawa Citizen yesterday,  virtually every major labour organization in Canada appears to have contributed to the defence fund, which was set up to help pay for court costs stemming from that robocalls-related defamation suit launched against the MP by RackNine, which has since been settled

The list -- which Martin submitted to Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson earlier this month --- includes the Canadian Labour Congress, United Steelworkers, the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Canadian Auto Workers, plus several smaller unions, a handful of locals and even a few union organizers.

The NDP caucus fund also kicked in some support, as did fellow MP Helene Leblanc.

In a separate filing, Martin revealed that he had also received a personal loan from the party itself, presumably to cover any costs that came up before he'd managed to raise the necessary funds.

What we don't know, however -- and which, barring an outburst of voluntary candor by either Martin or his supporters, will remain a mystery -- is just how much money he was able to raise from supporters, either on a donor-by-donor basis, or in total.

Although the MPs' conflict of interest code obliged Martin to disclose all 'gifts' worth more than $500, he doesn't have to assign those gifts an actual value, which means that those donations could have been for $500.01 or $5 million, or any amount in between. 

(Although Martin did not, of course, receive the money directly, after consulting the ethics commissioner, he agreed to declare all donations over $500 as gifts.) 

It's also worth noting that, as noted in the Citizen piece, donations of less than $500 -- including, say, $499.99 -- do not have to be disclosed at all, nor must Martin share any additional details on that loan from the party, including the total amount, the interest rate charged or any other details of the repayment process. In fact, the only indication that the loan has been paid off will be when it disappears from his disclosure of active liabilities.

Now, just to be clear, Martin appears to have followed the existing rules to the letter.

He got the go-ahead from the commissioner before launching the fund in the first place, and has provided all the necessary information since then. (It's not clear whether he took her advice and capped monetary donations at $30, although the very existence of the disclosed donor list would suggest that he did not.)

Still, it doesn't seem entirely unreasonable to at least consider whether any MP should be permitted to benefit from money contributed by groups or individuals with a vested interest in public policy issues that will almost certainly come before the House.

Indeed, Martin acknowledges that very concern in his response to the commissioner, and promises to be "mindful not to use [his] position to improperly further, or attempt to improperly further, the private interests of the donors."

In any case, as far as I can recall, the notion of an MP legal defence fund didn't come up during the drafting process, which makes it exactly the sort of unanticipated scenario that could be discussed during, say, a 5-year review of the conflict of interest code by a House committee.

In fact, that committee could even expand their study to look into whether MPs should be allowed to charge speaking fees -- and, perhaps, study the pros and cons extending the post-parliamentary cooling off period to committee chairs. 

In fact, as far as potential fodder for political  haymaking goes, the parties would seem to be pretty well evenly matched, which could well result in just the right sense of mutually assured destruction that inspires true nonpartisan cooperation.  

That is, unless they've managed to achieve tacit unanimous consent to leave that particular loose end danging, rather than risk triggering a process that could leave all MPs tied up in ethical knots.  

Tags: blackberry jungle, conflict of interest code, ethics commissioner

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