Manitoba premier will face no sanctions for violating conflict of interest rules

A judge has ruled Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson violated the legislature's conflict of interest rules, but she will face no consequences as a result.

Judge says she cannot impose penalty because Stefanson's mistake was inadvertent

A woman looks to her left, surrounded by other people.
Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson will face no consequences for failing to promptly disclose real estate sales in documentation she's required to file. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

A Manitoba judge has ruled Premier Heather Stefanson violated the legislature's conflict of interest rules, but she will face no consequences.

Justice Anne Turner said in a written decision that she cannot penalize Stefanson for failing to promptly disclose property sales because the premier made an unintended mistake.

"While inattention to the details of legislation is not something MLAs should strive for, [section 22 of the Conflict of Interest Act] clearly mandates that I cannot impose a penalty where a breach of the act was inadvertent," Turner wrote in the March 10 Court of King's Bench decision.

Under the existing rules, MLAs must file disclosure paperwork within 30 days.

The trio of property sales by MacDonald Grain — which Stefanson had shares in — were worth a combined $31 million. They took place in 2016 and 2019, before she became premier.

Stefanson apologized for the delay in January 2022 and has argued her failure to file the paperwork was inadvertent and thus not a violation of the act.

Section 22 of the Conflict of Interest Act states the judge may order restitution if it's determined the individual violated the act and received some form of pecuniary gain. Turner found no evidence Stefanson benefited financially from her failure to disclose the sales. 

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said he launched the civil lawsuit against Stefanson because it is the only means to enforce conflict of interest violations in the province. After this year's provincial election, however, the existing conflict of interest rules will be replaced by a new act, which will grant the legislature — not the courts — the power to settle conflict of interest complaints.

Lamont said he's disappointed by the decision.

"All an MLA has to do to avoid a penalty is say they didn't mean it. The premier never explained how she could forget $30 million in real estate deals. She just didn't think it was important enough to mention, so she's guilty, with no explanation," Lamont said in a news release.

The premier's office said Stefanson respects the court's ruling.

Speaking before the Court of King's Bench last month, Lamont's lawyer, David Hill, questioned how Stefanson could have made an inadvertent mistake after she filed more than three dozen previous disclosures over the course of her career as an MLA, which dates back to 2000.

Hill wanted Stefanson to be suspended for 90 days and for her to pay a $5,000 fine. These penalties, Hill argued, would serve the public by preserving the integrity of the legislature.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Kroft, Stefanson's lawyer, argued it is irrelevant whether his client ought to have known disclosure was mandatory. He described an inadvertent mistake as the opposite of a deliberate or calculated action.

He said Stefanson should not be subject to a significant penalty. The court, he argued, must be vigilant against the misuse of courts for partisan, political interests.