Politics

MP Yasmin Ratansi put herself in conflict of interest by employing foster sister: ethics commissioner

Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion says MP Yasmin Ratansi violated the Conflict of Interest Act while she was a member of the Liberal caucus by employing her foster sister in her constituency office for years.

Ratansi considered foster sister a sibling and referred to her as such, ethics commissioner says

MP Yasmin Ratansi violated the Conflict of Interest Act while a Liberal by employing a family member in her constituency office for years, Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion says in a new report. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion says MP Yasmin Ratansi violated the Conflict of Interest Act while she was a member of the Liberal caucus by employing her foster sister in her constituency office for years.

According to Dion's final report, released today, Ratansi argued during Dion's review of the case that Zeenat Khatri was not her biological sister, that she had been her foster sister since the 1950s. Ratansi said the bylaw doesn't specifically state that MPs cannot hire foster siblings, the report said.

Dion concluded that didn't matter because Ratansi had always considered Khatri a sister and publicly called her a sibling.

"The public perception of Ms. Ratansi's relationship to Ms. Khatri, based on Ms. Ratansi's own public statements and actions, led nonetheless to the strong appearance of an employment relationship that was contrary to the by-law," said Dion in a statement posted online today about his report on Khatri's hiring.

"I determined that Ms. Ratansi had furthered Ms. Khatri's private interests within the meaning of the Code by employing Ms. Khatri in her constituency office. As Ms. Khatri was not considered a family member for the purposes of the Code, I had to determine whether those private interests were improperly furthered."

An error made 'in good faith'

The office of Canada's conflict of interest and ethics commissioner received a complaint about Ratansi employing her sister using public funds in 2018, but turned it away . After the story made headlines last year, the office reversed course and opened a review; it admitted it could have approached the case differently three years ago.

Dion recommended no penalty for Ratansi. The ethics commissioner concluded that the non-compliance "occurred through inadvertence or an error in judgment made in good faith."

Ratansi posted on Facebook that she accepts the commissioner's report and hopes it brings an end to the matter. 

"The report now allows me to turn the page and my pledge is to continue to represent the residents of Don Valley East to the best of my ability and to ensure their voices are heard in Ottawa," wrote Ratansi. 

Ratansi, a longtime MP for Don Valley East, left the Liberal caucus in November 2020 after learning CBC News was investigating the fact that she had been employing her sister as her constituency assistant since 2017 in violation of parliamentary rules. MPs are not allowed to hire immediate family members, including siblings.

Staffers allege attempt to 'cover up'

Several former employees told CBC News Ratansi tried to "cover up" the relationship at the office by having her sister go by the first name 'Jenny.' CBC News has seen business cards bearing that name from Ratansi's office.

Former staffers also said they saw Ratansi's sister hide in an office or under her desk when people came in who might recognize her, and alleged they were instructed not to take photos of her at work events.

A former employee, Alim Lila, sued Ratansi over a series of allegations, including workplace mistreatment. In the statement of claim, Lila's lawyer argued Ratansi told Lila she was hiring her sister, that her sister would be using a pseudonym and that it was his job "to conceal her identity within the community and the office."

Lila expressed reservations but was told Ratansi's decision was final, said the court document. Lila "was admonished and suffered verbal abuse" when he accidentally referred to Khatri by her real name, the statement of claim said.

Ratansi has denied the allegations laid out in the lawsuit.

Ratansi argued she didn't violate bylaw

The report says Ratansi told the commissioner that Khatri was employed in her office from 2006 until she lost her seat in the 2011 federal election. Back then, it wasn't against the rules for MPs to hire their brothers or sisters; the bylaw changed in 2012.

Ratansi won her seat back in 2015 and in 2017 hired her foster sister back at the office. She later argued she was unaware the rules had changed, according to the report.

Ratansi argued that that there is no reference to an "adopted" or "foster" sibling in the Conflict of Interest Code or bylaw.

Liberal MP Yasmin Ratansi photographed with family including her sister Zeenat Khatri (seen left of Ratansi in a floral dress) who was listed as her constituency assistant in the government's online directory. (Facebook)

She testified during Dion's inquiry that her father took on a foster child while the family lived in Tanzania in the 1950s and that he never formally adopted Khatri before he passed away in 1972. Ratansi provided a copy of Khatri's birth certificate which showed Ratansi's father was not named as Khatri's father.

In written testimony and in a media interview, Ratansi said that she had always referred publicly to Khatri as her sister "in keeping with Islamic cultural practices and her father's personal wishes," said Dion's report.

Ratansi has called Khatri her "adopted sister" before. Her microphone went off mute while taking a call during an environmental committee hearing on Nov 4, 2020. Ratansi is seen on a video of the hearing leaning out of frame to take the call and is heard saying, "Zeenat is my adopted sister, actually."

WATCH: MP Yasmin Ratansi refers to her 'adopted sister'

‘Zeenat is my adopted sister actually,’ said now Independent MP Yasmin Ratansi

9 months ago
0:09
Ratansi microphone unmuted while taking a call during an environment committee on Nov 4. 0:09

In a letter to the commissioner, Ratansi also said she had employed her "adopted sister" from 2017 to Nov 2., 2020. Ratansi said she terminated the employment after learning the bylaw bars MPs from employing family members, including siblings, said Dion's report.

Ratansi said that the Liberal Party called her on Nov. 2, 2020 and told her it had received an anonymous letter stating her sister was working in the office, said Dion's report. Ratansi said she was told to fire her sister and write to Dion.

Ratansi, who is now an Independent MP, apologized on Facebook when announcing her departure from the Liberal caucus and said she had made an error in judgment.

Members of Parliament have ordered Ratansi to reimburse the House of Commons more than $9,000 paid to her sister when her employment was terminated. The House of Commons Board of Internal Economy conducted a three-month-long review and determined Ratansi breached parliamentary rules by employing her sister using public funds.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashley Burke

Reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. Have a story idea? Email her at ashley.burke@cbc.ca

With files from Kristen Everson

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