Inside Politics

FLASHBACK: PMO defends Tory MPs rebuked by ethics watchdog

Given the latest kerfuffle over letter-writing parliamentary secretaries, I thought it might be worth reposting this recap of the last time the ethics commissioner weighed in on the propriety of public office holders engaging in such correspondence. This piece was originally posted on January 25, 2013. 

Less than a week after Finance Minister Jim Flaherty found himself on the wrong end of an ethics ruling from Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson, two more parliamentary secretaries have received similar raps on the wrist for the very same act deemed "improper" by the commissioner -- namely, writing a letter to the CRTC on behalf of a hopeful applicant. 

Earlier today, Dawson's office issued compliance orders against Eve Adams and Colin Carrie, the parliamentary secretaries to the ministers of veterans affairs and health, respectively. According to the orders, Adams penned a note in support of an unnamed ethnic community radio station in Brampton, while Carrie backed the unsuccessful bid for the highly-coveted Toronto FM slot by Durham Radio Inc. -- the same station that had won the support of the minister. 

What's particularly interesting, however, is contrary to the explanation put forward by the government in response to the Flaherty decision -- namely, that he had mistakenly signed the letter using his ministerial title -- the wording of these orders, and the specific nature of the breach identified by the commissioner, suggest that ministers and parliamentary secretaries are, in fact, prohibited from sending such missives at all, even if doing so as an MP. 

In fact, both orders state: "Writing such a letter would be improper regardless of whether or not you explicitly identified yourself as a parliamentary secretary." 

That is, itself, far more explicit than the order handed down against Flaherty last week, which included no such categorical prohibition. 

(I've sent a note to the commissioner asking for clarification on this point -- if I hear back, I'll let you know.)

UPDATE: An uncharacteristically terse talking point dispatch from PMO in response to yesterday's orders notes that the parliamentary secretaries in question -- neither of whom, interestingly, is named in the release -- had intended to write the letters "in their capacity as Members of Parliament as they believed they were permitted to do [...]" 

It also includes, "for your info", the text of Section 64 of the Conflict of Interest Act, which states that nothing in the Act should prohibit a member who is also a public officer holder -- ministers and parliamentary secretaries, in other words --  from "engaging in those activities that he or she would normally carry out" as an MP.

The full text:

The Ethics Commissioner issued compliance orders yesterday to two Parliamentary Secretaries for letters they sent to the CRTC in support of radio stations' applications for a broadcasting license.

These Members of Parliament reached out proactively to the Ethics Commissioner to ensure that they were in compliance with the rules.  

Canadians expect their elected Members of Parliament to represent their interests and to exercise any other public office in the broader public interest. 

The intention of these Members was to write in their capacity as Members of Parliament as they believed they were permitted to do by the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Act

For your info:  

Section 64. (1) of the Conflict of Interest Act states "nothing in this Act prohibits a member of the Senate or the House of Commons who is a public office holder or former public office holder from engaging in those activities that he or she would normally carry out as a member of the Senate or the House of Commons."

After a bit of back and forth, I was finally able to get a definitive statement from the ethics commissioner, and it seems my initial interpretation was entirely correct -- ministers and parliamentary secretaries are not permitted to send letters of support to tribunals "in relation to its decision-making."

Here's the full text of the reply from OEC spokesperson Jocelyne Brisebois:

While the wording of the orders differs, the interpretation and application of the rules is the same. The Commissioner is of the view that the provision of the Conflict of Interest Act applies in these instances regardless of whether Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries use their titles or not.

I'm still waiting for an explanation of why that wasn't made quite as crystal clear in the compliance order issued against Flaherty last week.

Read the compliance orders below: 

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