Trudeau forced to defend Morneau's decision not to put business shares in a blind trust

In question period on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended his finance minister's decision not to put tens of millions of dollars' worth of shares in his company into a blind trust before joining the federal cabinet.

Morneau's use of loophole to retain shares in his company draws ire of opposition parties

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was grilled in question period over why Finance Minister Bill Morneau has not put his company shares in a blind trust. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In question period on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended his finance minister's decision not to put tens of millions of dollars' worth of shares in his company into a blind trust before joining the federal cabinet.

Trudeau took every question, as has become convention in the House of Commons on Wednesdays, and all but a few were about the conflict of interest controversy involving Finance Minister Bill Morneau.

"When the finance minister was first elected, he clearly said that he was going to put his vast fortune into a blind trust. We learned two years later that in 2015 he had a choice between selling the shares and putting them in a blind trust, and lo and behold, he did neither," deputy Opposition leader Lisa Raitt said in the House.

"Mr. Speaker, I want to know one specific thing. When did the prime minister learn that the minister of finance did not dispose of his shares in accordance with the ethics commissioner?" Raitt asked.

Trudeau said he knew that all his ministers discussed their financial holdings with Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson and that Morneau, like other members of the Liberal cabinet, followed her advice.

Within the first 60 days of a cabinet minister's appointment they must provide a list of assets, liabilities, income and any other related financial information to the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner.

Advisers in the office then tell ministers and parliamentary secretaries what they need to do to be in compliance with the Conflict of Interest Act.

The law says ministers are not allowed to hold on to any controlled assets — those that are directly held by a public office holder. They must either sell the assets or put them in a blind trust for as long as they remain in office, or until the assets have been depleted.

Blind trusts

Blind trusts, according to the office, are legal instruments managed by a third party, which have to be at "arm's length" from the elected official. The trustee, therefore, cannot be a friend, relative spouse or dependant. The trustee is the only one with the authority to buy or sell the assets they are managing.

In November 2015, Morneau appeared on CBC News Network's Power & Politics and was asked about his assets. 

"What I have personally done is, I've resigned my position as chair of the firm that I was chair of before," Morneau told host Rosemary Barton. "I expect that all my assets will go into a blind trust."

Morneau's comment can be found at the 7:20 mark in the video below, originally posted in November 2015.

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Indirectly held assets

When Morneau was appointed to cabinet, he revealed his assets to the ethics commissioner, including the shares he owns in Morneau Shepell, the human resources and pension management company his father founded.

On Tuesday, Dawson said she told Morneau that he didn't need a blind trust.

"I told him that it wasn't required," she told reporters. "I took a look at what he disclosed, and according to what was disclosed, and which I do for everybody, I make a judgment as to what's necessary."

Morneau hasn't answered questions about what he did with his company shares and Dawson refused to comment on the specifics of Morneau's holdings.

Dawson said that "sometimes the asset is not directly held, and our act covers things that are directly held."

It is an important distinction.

Morneau's share ownership

According to public records, at the time of the last federal election the finance minister had more than two million common shares in Morneau Shepell that were controlled by an Alberta-based numbered company.

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According to the Globe and Mail, that numbered company is almost totally owned by another Toronto-based company that is owned by Morneau. His wife, Nancy McCain, is president of the Toronto firm and is listed as a director of the Alberta firm.

The complex ownership structure of Morneau's shares meant he did not have to place them in a blind trust because he did not directly control the shares, even though he controls a company that does.

On Tuesday, Dawson told CTV's Power Play that back in 2013 she recommended the rules be changed and expanded in such a way that Morneau's companies would be required to be managed by a blind trust, but admitted she can only enforce the rules on the books. 

"It's my job to fulfil the will of Parliament on what the rules are," Dawson told CTV.

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In his mandate letter from Trudeau, it says that as finance minister Morneau is expected to be "fully compliant" with the Conflict of Interest Act and "uphold the highest standards of honesty and impartiality." 

The letter goes on to say that Morneau's private affairs should be able to stand up to the highest level of public scrutiny, noting that "this is an obligation that is not fully discharged by simply acting within the law."

While Morneau has done nothing illegal, it is that requirement, to not only act in accordance with the law, but the spirit of the law, that has put him in the crosshairs of the opposition. 

On Tuesday, Morneau wrote to Dawson saying he wants a meeting with the commissioner to ask her if he should be doing more.

"Should you determine that additional measures — such as a blind trust — would be an appropriate course of action, I would be pleased and eager to move forward on any revised recommendations you might provide," Morneau said in the letter.