Conflicts of interest alleged in federal job exchanges
Ian Scott was a high-level executive at Telus Corp. when he was headhunted by the federal government to work for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
"I was approached by the chair [of the CRTC]," remembers Scott. "And he talked my employer into it."
The Telus bosses allowed Scott to join the broadcast and telecommunications regulator under the government's Executive Interchange Program. Scott would take the public service job as chief policy adviser to the chair for a year, between the fall of 2007 and 2008, then go back to the private sector.
The interchange program welcomes people from the private sector, academia, Crown corporations and other government agencies to fit into executive roles in the public service for up to four years. Participants continue to make their private-sector salary and their employers are reimbursed by the government.
French-language skills are often not necessary for interchange participants. The goal is a sharing of skills and professional development.
But a program that brings people from the private sector into potentially influential public service positions, only to return to their corporations later, is raising questions about potential conflicts of interest.
Scott’s role at Telus involved lobbying the government and he had registered as an in-house lobbyist for the corporation. When he went to work for the government, Scott didn’t take himself off the lobby registry.
Registry in error
It appeared as if he was still lobbying while working as a chief policy adviser at the CRTC. But Scott says that was definitely not the case.
"I was still an employee of Telus. I would be more worried about that no longer being reflected on the registry," explains Scott. "Then I’d be accused of hiding it."
But the lobby registry was no longer accurate in listing him and, therefore, was potentially in violation of the Lobby Act.
CBCNews found three other interchange participants on the lobby registry. At least one was on the registry in error.
Having people registered as lobbying the government while on interchange is clearly against the rules, says Errol Mendez, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who has also spent some time working in the federal government’s Privy Council Office.
He says it’s a clear conflict of interest.
Mendez notes even if it’s an oversight and the names have been left on the registry by accident, "just the perception makes it a conflict and it should never be allowed."
David Zussman, who also teaches at the University of Ottawa and sits on the Public Service Commission of Canada, says: "Ultimately, this will undermine the exchange program itself if it appears the people on the program are continuing to work for their clients while inside the system."
A few months after leaving the CRTC in the fall of 2008, Scott joined Telesat, a Canadian satellite firm where he now is executive director of government and regulatory affairs.
According to the lobby registry, Scott started lobbying for Telesat in late October 2008. Among other departments, Telesat was lobbying the CRTC.
Treasury Board rules stipulate that an interchange participant can't lobby the department he just left for at least one year.
But Scott says this lobby registry filing is inaccurate because he didn't start at Telesat until January 2009.
"Filings are done annually. You have to be listed, it doesn't mean you're requesting meetings [with government officials,]" explains Scott.
He adds, "I don't want to leave the impression I haven't followed the rules. I certainly have."
Duff Conacher, co-ordinator of Democracy Watch, says the fact that the names of some people in the interchange program are simultaneously found on the lobby registry raises some serious questions about who is monitoring the participants.
"The system is way too wide open because the ethics commissioner, lobby commissioner, public sector commissioner are not doing regular, random audits, especially of these kinds of positions which potentially have massive conflicts."
Serge Buy, a lobbyist and senior partner at Flagship Solutions who represents various small businesses, believes the interchange program is rife with conflicts of interest.
"I think it’s hard to believe someone who’s been lobbying for an issue X, Y or Z suddenly joins the government and is absolutely going to drop any pretense of lobbying for those issues and suddenly say, 'Now my role is to represent all of Canadian taxpayers, so forget everything I said before.' And everything is fine."
When asked about the potential for conflict of interest, government officials say there is no record of any interchange assignments being terminated due to a conflict.
Government documents maintain, "there is no record of any Interchange Canada assignments having been terminated due to a conflict of interest." Nor are officials aware of any complaints about conflicts.
"Anybody coming in to work on an Interchange Canada assignment has to clear conflict of interest before they’ll even sign the letter of agreement,'' said Yasmine Laroche, assistant deputy minister of executive policies and talent management with the Treasury Board, the department that administers the Interchange program.
"And under the policy, the deputy minister is accountable for making sure conflict of interest, post-employment guidelines and all security requirements are met before the letter of agreement will be signed."
But a 2007 internal audit into the interchange program, done by the Canadian Heritage Department, shows conflicts of interest have arisen.
"Results of the audit indicate that when potential situations of conflict of interest are present, they are not always identified as such and are not properly addressed and documented," the audit report said.
The report recommended that managers and participants identify situations of potential conflict of interest and that appropriate declaration forms should be completed. The government said it agreed with the recommendation.
Julie Ireton, the 2010 Michener-Deacon Fellow, is investigating issues in the federal public service.