Baird says PMO chief who sat in on Barrick call had no conflict

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird tells CBC News that Nigel Wright, the prime minister's chief of staff, sat in on a one-way call with Barrick and that he is not in a conflict of interest despite his personal ties to the world's largest gold producer.

Ethics watchdog following up with PMO chief after Barrick lobbied him despite personal ties

Nigel Wright, chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was lobbied by Barrick Gold Corp., despite having personal ties to the company. Wright is seen here during committee testimony on Parliament Hill in 2010. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The prime minister's chief of staff was on a call with Barrick Gold Corp. but he is not in a conflict of interest and did not use his position to further the financial interests of his friends, says Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

In an interview with CBC News, Baird said Nigel Wright, the prime minister's chief of staff, "has no personal or financial interest in Barrick Gold Corp."

While a number of people were on the call with Barrick,  Baird said "it was a one-way call where they called and raised an issue, and it was dealt with by someone else in the office."

A spokesperson for Mary Dawson, the ethics commissioner, told CBC News the ethics watchdog is following up with Wright after the disclosure that he was lobbied twice by Barrick, the world's largest gold producer, in May.

While the ethics watchdog can initiate an investigation, her office confirmed that no official complaint has been filed for her to do so.

Wright has known Barrick founder and board chairman Peter Munk for years and is particularly close to his son, Anthony, who sits on Barrick's board of directors. Wright also worked with Anthony Munk at Onex Corp., the private equity investment firm from which Wright has taken a leave of absence to work for Harper.

According to a report summary filed by Barrick with the federal lobbying commissioner, someone from the company — the report does not identify who — contacted Wright on May 14 to discuss international relations and international trade.

Nine days later, a second report indicates, Barrick talked to Wright again on the same subject matter — this time along with Harper's foreign policy adviser, Andrea van Vugt, and his principal secretary, Ray Novak, who is Harper's point man on government-to-government relations.

Barrick's contact with Wright came shortly after Harper blocked a resolution on Argentina's claim to the Falkland Islands during the Summit of the Americas in Colombia in mid-April.

Barrick operates a mine in Argentina and is developing another controversial open pit gold and silver mine that straddles the border between Chile and Argentina.

Baird told CBC News Wright "didn't take part in any decisions on this issue."

A person doesn't necessarily need to be involved in actual decision-making to wind up in a conflict of interest.

Under the Conflict of Interest Act, a public office holder is supposed to recuse himself or herself from "any discussion, decision, debate or vote on any matter" which could result in a conflict.

The act describes conflict of interest as the exercise of "an official power, duty or function that provides (the public office holder) an opportunity to further his or her private interests or those of his or her relatives or friends or to improperly further another person's private interests."

On the advice of the federal ethics watchdog, Wright set up a "conflict of interest screen" when he joined the Prime Minister's Office. The screen is meant to ensure that Wright abstains from any participation in matters relating to Onex, its subsidiaries and affiliates or even involving general policy matters, such as tax treatment of the private equity industry, that could affect it.

The question now is whether Wright should also have recused himself from discussions involving Barrick.

"This is the prime minister who said he would clean this kind of thing up. Now it seems that's all about who you know inside the PMO," Charlie Angus, the NDP's ethics critic, told CBC News.

"It stinks."

With files from The Canadian Press