Politics

Bruce Carson likely will avoid jail time for influence peddling

A former top adviser to Stephen Harper likely will avoid jail time for an influence peddling conviction related to the sale of water treatment systems on First Nations reserves.

Lawyer says former top Harper aide went from $470K to a basement apartment

Bruce Carson, a former Stephen Harper adviser, isn't likely to face jail time for an influence-peddling conviction connected to the proposed sale of water filtration systems to First Nations reserves. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

A former top adviser to Stephen Harper likely will avoid jail time for an influence peddling conviction related to the sale of water treatment systems on First Nations reserves.

At a sentencing hearing in Ottawa today, defence and Crown lawyers agreed the circumstances of Bruce Carson's case do not warrant imprisonment, even though the fraud offence carries a potential prison term of up to five years.

In March the Supreme Court of Canada rejected Carson's final appeal, returning the case to a lower court for sentencing.

The high court found Carson had demanded a benefit — a sales commission for his then-girlfriend, who was employed by H20 Professionals Inc. — in exchange for helping the company land contracts by leveraging his contacts with government and First Nations officials.

Defence lawyer Patrick McCann recommended a suspended sentence with community service, stressing that Carson has devoted his life to politics and public service.

He presented several reference letters to the court praising Carson's strong work ethic, dependability and expertise in public policy — including attestations from former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, former political strategist and diplomat Derek Burney and Jaime Watt, chairman of the public relations firm Navigator.

McCann said Carson, now in his mid-seventies, was earning about $470,000 a year before the controversy erupted in March 2011. Since then, he said, Carson has been largely unemployable.

From $470K to basement apartment

Carson now lives on modest earnings and two pensions and lives in a basement apartment in Gatineau, Que. — a "far cry" from his previous lifestyle, his lawyer said.

McCann said Carson only intended to help his then girlfriend, who was struggling with drug dependency.

"His motivation was selfless. There was nothing in it for him," he said.

Crown attorney Jason Nicol rejected the suggestion that Carson's actions were altruistic and pure, describing them as a "hidden, dark scheme" that could have had serious consequences if contracts had been awarded.

"That would have done significant damage to the integrity of government," he said.

Past criminal record

Nicol also pointed to Carson's past criminal record for theft and fraud in the 1980s and 1990s, which — while dated — is serious, he said.

The Crown asked for a conditional sentence of 18 months, with the first nine months under house arrest, to serve as "denunciation and deterrence." He also called for specific restrictions on Carson's contacts and government business activities.

Justice Bonnie Warkentin said she would review the arguments before delivering a sentence at a later date, likely in June.

Carson worked as senior aide and adviser to former prime minister Stephen Harper from 2006-2008, and has been influential in Conservative circles. In 2014 he published a book titled, 14 Days: Making the Conservative Movement in Canada, and is set to soon publish his second book called Life on the Fringe of Federal Politics, McCann said.

The 8-1 decision by the Supreme Court adopted a broad interpretation of what constitutes "business relating to the government" under the Criminal Code section on influence peddling.

Supreme Court ruling

Writing for the majority, Justice Andromache Karakatsanis said "business related to government" includes all publicly funded transactions where the government could impose or amend terms and conditions that would favour one vendor over another, not just those facilitated under the existing operational structure.

"The offence captures promises to exercise influence to change or expand government programs," the decision reads.

An accused does not need to actually have influence with the government, or succeed in influencing government, to be found guilty of influence peddling, because the law targets anyone "having or pretending to have influence with the government," the judgment says.

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