Politics

Conservatives call for a 2nd Morneau ethics probe as they demand his resignation

Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett has sent a letter to the ethics commissioner asking for another probe of Finance Minister Bill Morneau after the minister revealed yesterday that WE Charity covered $41,000 in travel costs for him and his family in 2017.

Tories want investigation after finance minister revealed he received $41K in free travel from WE

Canada's Minister of Finance Bill Morneau prior to a press conference in Toronto on July 17, 2020. (Cole Burston/Canadian Press)

Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett has sent a letter to the ethics commissioner asking for another probe of Finance Minister Bill Morneau after the minister revealed yesterday that WE Charity covered $41,000 in travel costs for him and his family in 2017.

The ethics commissioner, Mario Dion, already has launched an investigation into Morneau's failure to recuse himself from cabinet talks about awarding the WE Charity a multi-million-dollar contract to administer the summer student grants program. Morneau's daughter works for WE in its travel department.

Barrett said Morneau should resign.

He said it's well known that public office holders can't accept free travel from a third party. He said he doesn't accept Morneau's apology and his claim that he didn't realize he hadn't personally repaid WE for the travel.

"Sorry doesn't cut it," Barrett said.

"This is a continuation of a pattern with the Trudeau Liberals — there's two sets of rules, one for the governing class and one for those they govern."

He said it was an act of "extreme arrogance" for Morneau to cut a cheque to cover the expenses on the day he was set to testify before the Commons finance committee on the WE grants scandal.

He said most Canadians would notice if they hadn't been billed for tens of thousands of dollars worth of travel to Kenya and Ecuador.

"Who did he think covered these $41,000 in luxurious travel-related expenses and other advantages that he received during his vacation stays?" Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre asked.

"Who did Mr. Morneau think paid for his wine, for his hotel rooms, for his transportation and for all the other benefits he received during his wonderful vacations? In fact, how can one person even spend $41,000 on a vacation?"

Watch: Conservatives want 2nd ethics probe of Morneau's WE ties:

The Conservatives are calling for a second ethics investigation into Finance Minister Bill Morneau over the $41,000 in travel he received from the WE organization in 2017. 1:46

NDP MP Charlie Angus also has written to the commissioner asking for an investigation.

"Mr. Morneau's revelation that he received significant financial benefit from paid travel from a group that was seeking government funds raises the issue to another level," he said.

"It is plainly impermissible for a minister of the Crown to receive financial or in-kind gifts of this nature."

Morneau said yesterday that, while reviewing documents in the midst of the WE grants affair, he discovered he hadn't fully reimbursed WE for these years-old travel expenses. He said he reached out to WE to learn the full amount that hadn't been paid and had his assistant write a cheque for $41,366.

"I expected and always had intended to pay the full cost of these trips, and it was my responsibility to make sure that was done," Morneau told MPs on the committee.

"Not doing so, even unknowingly, is not appropriate. I want to apologize for this error on my part."

Morneau said that he flagged the missed travel payments to the ethics commissioner himself.

"I formally asked the ethics commissioner to review this information as part of his examination," he said.

Morneau said his family travelled to Ecuador to help build schools as part of the humanitarian work WE does in that country.

His wife, Nancy McCain — a member of the wealthy family behind the french-fry maker McCain Foods Ltd. — travelled with her daughter to Kenya to tour projects her donations had helped finance.

In a statement, WE said that "from time to time, on a complimentary basis, WE Charity invites potential supporters to see the impact of its global projects.

"After their trips, donors have provided tens of millions of dollars to directly improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries."

WE said it's the responsibility of the people who accepted the complimentary travel "to report their participation on these trips" to the relevant authorities.

Mr. Morneau has shown no regard for these expenses until he was on the hot seat.- Conservative MP Michael Barrett

In his letter to the ethics commissioner calling for the second investigation, Barrett said that, based on the statement from WE, the travel was always intended to be free of cost to the Morneau family.

"Mr. Morneau has shown no concern or regard for these expenses until he was on the hot seat for his relationship with WE," he said.

"Free trips to power brokers is WE's standing operating procedure as a means of impressing — or, to borrow the [Conflict of Interest] Act's wording, 'to influence' — powerful people with big chequebooks."

The eastern Ontario MP also flagged other grants and contracts that the federal government has handed WE in the five years Morneau has been finance minister.

He said the seven other grants and contributions Ottawa has made to WE — deals worth more than $5 million — should be seen in a new light given the revelations about Morneau's family ties to the charity and the free travel he received from WE.

One such funding arrangement was personally announced by Morneau in the same month his daughter, Grace, was hired by the charity.

Poilievre said the Conservatives have identified "at least" five sections of the Conflict of Interest Act that Morneau may have breached by accepting free travel from WE.

Watch: Finance Minister Bill Morneau on WE Charity travel expenses

Conservative MPs repeated their calls for Morneau to resign and for the prime minister to be held accountable for the WE Charity scandal. 1:16

He highlighted section 11 of the act, which stipulates that no minister of the Crown "shall accept any gift or other advantage" that might "reasonably be seen to have been given to influence the public office holder in the exercise of an official power, duty or function."

He also cited section 12, which states no minister "shall accept travel on non-commercial chartered or private aircraft for any purpose unless required in his or her capacity as a public office holder or in exceptional circumstances or with the prior approval of the Commissioner."

"Why hasn't Justin Trudeau fired him?" Poilievre asked. "I don't ask that rhetorically but specifically.

"I think there's a reason. I think it's because if Justin Trudeau imposes any level of ethical standard on Bill Morneau, then others would ask that he impose it on himself."

Committee to study 'ethical permissiveness' in PMO

The ethics committee, which is chaired by Conservative MP Rachael Harder, also agreed today to launch its own study of what it called the climate of "ethical permissiveness" in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) — given that Trudeau is now facing his third ethics commissioner investigation in four years.

The opposition parties supported a motion, introduced by Angus, to study the policies, processes and practices surrounding "ethical conduct and avoidance" in the PMO with respect to the WE Charity contract in particular.

All of the Liberal MPs on the committee voted against the motion for a study.

The committee has agreed that Trudeau's chief of staff, Katie Telford, and Clerk of the Privy Council Ian Shugart should be called to appear before the body as part of its study. Other witnesses also could be called.

NDP MP Matthew Green said the committee needs to conduct the probe so that it can provide some recommendations for future PMO staff on how to avoid such scandals, and ethical breaches, in the future.

Green said it would "restore the public confidence in government and the government's integrity."

When Trudeau was first elected in 2015, he drafted a set of "core principles" and "standards of conduct" that he said he expected his ministers and parliamentary secretaries to uphold.

The document, titled Open and Accountable Government, clearly prohibits ministers and senior MPs from accepting sponsored travel.

Trudeau also told his ministers that he expected them to be "thoroughly familiar with the Conflict of Interest Act." 

When asked by Angus if he had ever read the act, Morneau said Wednesday that it was in the briefing documents that he received when he was first appointed in 2015.

"I believe when I first came into office I would have access to all of those acts," Morneau said, without clearly stating that he actually had read the document.

In his letter to the commissioner, Angus said Morneau's answer "did not give the impression that he paid much attention to this important law." 

This isn't the first time Morneau has been accused of breaking the ethics code.

Morneau was found to have contravened the act in 2017 when he failed to disclose a private corporation that owns a villa in southern France.

MPs are supposed to disclose any private companies they own anywhere in the world.

Poilievre dodged questions about whether the WE scandal demands a quick election.

The Conservative Party is in the midst of a leadership campaign and pandemic-related restrictions would make holding an election now difficult.

"In the not so distant future, Canadians will decide," Poilievre said in French.

Watch: Liberal cabinet ministers defend Morneau

'Today I wrote a cheque in payment of $41,366. I expected and always had intended to pay the full cost of these trips.' 2:54

A number of cabinet ministers lined up to defend Morneau today.

"Obviously mistakes have been made," said Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna, adding that both Morneau and Trudeau have apologized.

"There will be a lot more discussion of this at the [finance] committee. But my focus is that we keep people safe during COVID-19."

Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said Morneau has led his department competently through the pandemic and he continues to have faith in the finance minister.

"Minister Morneau said that he made a mistake and he apologized for it," Guilbeault said at an event in Montreal.

"What I would like Canadians to remember is ... through the work of many ministers, including Minister Morneau, we've been able to help millions of Canadians make it through what is certainly one of the worst social, economic crises we've seen in the last 100 years."

Small Business and International Trade Minister Mary Ng said she also has "confidence" in Morneau continuing in the finance role.

"He's a good colleague that is focused on service, on supporting Canadians, particularly during this very difficult time of COVID-19," she said during a press conference on Zoom.

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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