Harper defends Paradis in Jaffer case ethics breach
Former Tory MP given special treatment, conflict of interest commissioner says
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is standing by cabinet minister Christian Paradis, despite a report Thursday that found Paradis breached his government's own ethics rules in giving special access to former Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer's business interests.
"The minister didn't act with any ill intention of any kind, nor has any substantial harm of any kind occurred. I think the appropriate thing in this case is simply for the minister to learn and to conduct himself with greater precaution in the future," Harper told reporters travelling with him at a news conference in Bangkok.
Conflict of Interest Commissioner Mary Dawson said Christian Paradis broke the rules set out in the Conflict of Interest Act when he told officials at Public Works and Government Services, the department he headed at the time, to talk with Jaffer about his company, Green Power Generation.
"Mr. Paradis gave preferential treatment to Mr. Jaffer in that he treated him more favourably than he might have treated others in similar circumstances," Dawson wrote in her report released Thursday.
But Dawson, who has been accused of being a toothless watchdog, said she understands Paradis's desire to help a former colleague.
"I believe that Mr. Paradis's inclination to help his former caucus colleague, while inappropriate, is easy to understand," Dawson said. "However, ministers are in a position of power and have a special responsibility to ensure that that power is exercised fairly and in a way that is open to all Canadians."
Harper told reporters in Thailand that he had reviewed the Dawson's findings, but his remarks suggest he'll stand by his minister despite the breach. Paradis is now Harper's most senior cabinet minister in Quebec, a province where the government has only five Conservative MPs among whom the prime minister can choose to represent Quebec's interests in cabinet.
A Thursday statement from Paradis to the media did not suggest he intended to step down, despite his acceptance of the commissioner's finding that he broke the rules.
No penalties for breach
Dawson spokeswoman Jocelyne Brisebois said later there "are no fines or penalties for most of the substantive breaches. There are no sanctions for this situation other than making this report public."
Paradis, now industry minister, has been the subject of controversy over his support for the asbestos industry. Asbestos is mined in his riding and exported to developing countries.
While he was public works minister, one of his staffers, Sebastien Togneri, had to resign after it was revealed Togneri had told a civil servant to "un-release" a document that was to be mailed out to a journalist under federal Access to Information laws.
In a statement, Paradis said he accepts Dawson's conclusions and emphasized there was never any prospect of financial gain for him.
"The commissioner recognized that there was never an attempt to influence the decisions of public servants. The company in question never secured a contract," Paradis said.
"The commissioner said today that these reports are educational tools to help us understand how conflict of interest rules work. In the future, I will take further precautions when approached by Canadians seeking more information about the services and programs provided by their government."
New Democrat MP Charlie Angus said Paradis must be held to account.
"This is a damning indictment for not only this minister but for the low ethical standards of the Harper government," Angus said. "The prime minister must act immediately — to sit back and do nothing means the Harper government isn't serious about accountability."
Paradis told Dawson he didn't think businesses in general got more attention from the department when requests to meet with them come from the minister's office, or that Jaffer's company in particular got extra attention.
"He does not think that Green Power Generation got more attention than it deserved because the request to meet with that company came from him," Dawson said in the report.
Despite that, Togneri told Dawson's office that "since Mr. Paradis had requested the meeting, he [Togneri] viewed it as a priority and sought to ensure that a meeting with Green Power Generation would take place."
Dawson also noted Paradis shouldn't be helping businesses in his riding get meetings with Public Works officials. Paradis had given her examples of other times he arranged meetings between officials and companies.
"With respect to interactions with their own departments and portfolios, ministers should treat their constituents in the same way as they would treat constituents of any other member of Parliament," she wrote.
"In my opinion, ministers representing the concerns of constituents should not use their position as minister to provide greater assistance to these constituents in relation to their own department or larger portfolio."
Paradis gave Jaffer only a procedural advantage and didn't intervene further, Dawson said, adding she suspects facilitating access to decision makers is common.
"People want to help those they know and it is often difficult not to do so when help is sought," Dawson wrote. "It is easy to understand how, finding himself in a position to help Mr. Jaffer, Mr. Paradis would be inclined to do so. Mr. Jaffer told me that many of his former colleagues took an interest in how he was doing and wanted to help if they could."
Paradis told Dawson that he didn't arrange the meeting because he wanted to help Jaffer or because he trusted him.
"Rather, [Paradis] assumed that what Mr. Jaffer was proposing was serious and credible. He relied on the judgment of Mr. Jaffer. Mr. Paradis said that, given Mr. Jaffer’s experience as a member of Parliament, he assumed that Mr. Jaffer knew how things worked and that he would not waste departmental officials' time with an idea that had no merit," Dawson said.
Jaffer's wife, former MP Helena Guergis, broke the rules when she recommended the local town council consider a constituent's company that was also linked to Jaffer, Dawson reported in July 2011.
In that case, Dawson said Guergis violated the MP code of conduct, but not the conflict of interest law.