ANALYSIS | Greg Weston: Lobbying watchdog seeks tougher penalties

Canada's lobbying commissioner is calling for tougher penalties against rule-breaking arm-twisters after a former Conservative MP and his business partner got their wrists slapped Monday for five separate infractions.
Rahim Jaffer appears as a witness at a standing committee on government operations and estimates on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 17, 2010. Lobbying commissioner Karen Shepherd has found he broke the lobbyists' code of conduct. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Canada's lobbying commissioner is calling for tougher penalties against rule-breaking arm-twisters after a former Conservative MP and his business partner got their wrists slapped Monday for five separate infractions.

After an eight-month investigation, commissioner Karen Shepherd ruled that former MP Rahim Jaffer and businessman Patrick Glemaud repeatedly broke the federal lobbying code in their attempts to secure $178 million of government grants in 2009.

Lobbyists are required by law to register with Shepherd's office, and to disclose exactly whom they are lobbying in government and for what, a process that is supposed to provide public scrutiny of how public money is being spent.

Jaffer and Glemaud both should have known the rules.

Jaffer was an MP for 13 years, and Glemaud is a lawyer, and former official at the federal Justice Department.

Yet, Shepherd found the two didn't even register as lobbyists seeking millions of dollars in government grants, much less disclose their contact with senior government officials and politicians in the process.

Their punishment?

No jail time. No fines. No criminal record. No ban on lobbying. Nothing but  the embarrassment of having their misdeeds made public in Shepherd's report to Parliament.

But don't blame the lobbying commissioner.

The problem seems to lie with the RCMP, and ineffective lobbying laws.

The Conservatives came to power in 2006 promising to introduce the toughest lobbying legislation in the country's history, cracking down on former politicians and bureaucrats making a killing from their government connections.

Instead, the Lobbying Act and its related code of conduct have generated millions of dollars of apparently well-founded investigations, but not a single prosecution.

In fact, the only sanction against a lobbyist since the Conservatives came to power was his having to write an essay about what lessons he learned from breaking the law. Seriously.

The case of Jaffer and his partner illustrates how the system works — or doesn't.

Shepherd launched her investigation of Jaffer and Glemaud in April 2010 after the Toronto Star reported some of their lobbying activities, in turn prompting three opposition MPs to file official complaints with the lobbying commissioner.

Shepherd commands an entire investigations unit that costs taxpayers over $1 million a year.

In her report to Parliament, she says the results of the investigation gave her "reasonable grounds to believe" the two men had engaged in unregistered lobbying in half of the cases probed by her office.

On Oct. 29, 2010, after six months of investigation, Shepherd called in the Mounties as she was legally required to do where she had evidence to suggest an offence under the Lobbying Act had been committed.

If the RCMP investigations had led to convictions, the two could have faced fines of up to $200,000 and two years in jail.

But that didn't happen. Not even close.

On March 29 of this year, three days into the federal election and five months after the RCMP got Shepherd's request to investigate the case, the Mounties wrote her back to say they were simply closing the file.

When it comes to law-bending lobbyists, it seems, the Mounties never get their man.

In a report earlier this year, Shepherd complained that "despite available penalties, no one has ever been charged or convicted of an offence under the Lobbying Act."

Her office, she said, "forwards comprehensive, well-documented case files to the RCMP. Yet prosecutions have not been commenced in 10 of the 11 cases referred to the RCMP since 2005. One case remains under review."

Remarkably, the federal lobbying commissioner has no power to recommend prosecution for offences under the Lobbying Act — that has to come from the Mounties.

And when the RCMP decided to close the file on Jaffer and Glemaud, all Shepherd could do was rule on breaches of the federal lobbyist code of conduct.

As the commissioner tells CBC News: "I had reasonable grounds in those cases to believe that the act had been breached, and I referred the file to the RCMP.

"They decided not to proceed and I used my authority not to continue with the lobbyist code of conduct investigation."

The problem is, unlike the Lobbying Act, the code of conduct carries no penalties.

Without sanctions, the lobbying commissioner admits "the corrective impact is generally perceived as being limited."

Shepherd is scheduled to appear Tuesday before a parliamentary committee set to review the Lobbying Act.

Not surprisingly, her key recommendation will be for government to grant the lobbying commissioner new powers to slap fines and other punishments on arm-twisters who bend the rules.