Analysis

Hunter Tootoo admits to an 'inappropriate' relationship, but did he break any rules?

Hunter Tootoo admitted to having what he called a consensual but inappropriate relationship with a staffer, but it is unclear if he broke any parliamentary rules. Lawyers say that concerns emerge when managers engage in personal relationships in the workplace.

No complaints made to ethics commissioner about Tootoo's behaviour

Hunter Tootoo said Thursday he has no plans to resign as Nunavut's MP after confirming allegations he had an inappropriate relationship before his sudden resignation from cabinet and the Liberal caucus. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

There are signs the pressure is getting to Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo and those around him.

When one of his assistants was reached by phone on Friday, and pressed for clarification about an issue, the staffer responded with a terse, "What don't you get? We are not commenting."

Tootoo's unexpected admission about his "consensual but inappropriate" relationship in the workplace may be drawing unwanted attention to the former Liberal cabinet minister, but at this time, there is no indication any parliamentary rules have been broken. 

While policies are in place to prevent unwanted sexual attention, there appears to be nothing on the books about consensual relationships between members of Parliament and staffers. 

When asked about it, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office wouldn't say if any rules had been broken. 

"Any discussion of the incident in question would jeopardize the privacy of the individual involved," Cameron Ahmad told CBC News during a phone interview. 

'Narrow' ethics rules for MPs

A spokeswoman for the Ethics Commissioner's Office says no complaints have been filed against Tootoo

"I can confirm that our office has not received any requests for the commissioner to look into the matter," Jocelyne Brisbois said in an email to CBC News.

Members of the legal community with insight into the rules on Parliament Hill say ethics guidelines can be narrow.

"Some legislatures have created codes that are very broad, that cover a wide range of activities, and may arguably include workplace relationships. It's not clear that the House of Commons has done that yet," said Benjamin Grant, an employment lawyer at Conway Baxter LLP in Ottawa.

There is no law on the books that prevents a consensual relationship.- Paul Willetts

"Their code, which is administered by Mary Dawson, the commissioner of ethics … is still, for the most part, focused on relatively narrow questions on conflicts of interests," Grant said.

MPs are expected to abide by a conflict of interest code.

There is no specific mention about consensual relationships, but the document does state parliamentarians are expected "to perform their official duties and functions and arrange their private affairs in a manner that bears the closest public scrutiny, an obligation that may not be fully discharged by simply acting within the law." 

The code also calls on MPs to "arrange their private affairs so that foreseeable real or apparent conflicts of interest may be prevented from arising, but if such a conflict does arise, to resolve it in a way that protects the public interest."

Potential for abuse of power

One Ottawa employment lawyer said challenges can emerge in any workplace when a manager becomes involved in a personal relationship. 

"The primary concern that comes to mind is any potential for abuse of power, or if there would be differential treatment in the workplace as a result of that relationship," said Paul Willetts, partner at Ottawa employment law firm Vey Willetts LLP.

"There may also be an impact on staff morale more broadly if they're aware of the relationship, or even the perception … whether it's true or not, that there is differential treatment occurring," Willetts added, on the general issue of workplace relationships.

Tootoo has not publicly revealed details about the position or rank of the woman involved in the workplace relationship he described as "consensual" but "inappropriate." 

Before his departure from cabinet and caucus, Tootoo was the senior person in charge of not only of his own office, but the Department of Oceans and Fisheries as well.

"There is no law on the books that prevents a consensual relationship. At the end of the day, this is really coming down to employers if they want to have a say in this kind of conduct, to put policies in place and to enforce those fairly," Willetts said.

Tootoo was unavailable for comment on this story.