'I need to do more': Bill Morneau takes steps to calm ethics controversy
Embattled finance minister to place assets in blind trust, divest shares in family-built company
Finance Minister Bill Morneau is placing his assets in a blind trust and divesting shares in his family-built company to calm a growing ethics controversy over his personal holdings.
During a news conference on Parliament Hill, Morneau said he will unload the million shares, worth about $20 million, he has in Morneau Shepell, the human resources and pension management company his father founded.
His other assets will be placed in a blind trust in order to avoid any public perception of conflict of interest, he said.
He has been under fire since the Globe and Mail reported Monday that Morneau did not put his business assets into a blind trust. That led opposition critics to accuse him of conflict of interest in sponsoring legislation involving private pensions, C-27, that could benefit him financially.
Earlier today, Morneau insisted he sought and followed advice from the federal ethics commissioner "to the letter."
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But he said mounting questions this week reflected the need to take additional steps.
"I need to do more," he said. "As minister of finance, in this role, it's important to make sure people have absolute confidence."
Morneau, who will deliver his Fall Economic Statement October 24, said that as the process of divesting shares unfolds, a conflict of interest screen will remain in place.
Going 'above and beyond'
He released a letter from Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson written after he was appointed to cabinet, and said her recommendations formed the basis of his approach. Now, he is going "above and beyond" to try to put the controversy to rest.
"This is a way for me to assure Canadians to the highest level of confidence there is no possibility of any conflict of interest," he said.
But the moves did little to quiet the opposition parties. Morneau faced a barrage of questions in the House of Commons, with critics accusing him of secrecy, hypocrisy and divesting his shares only after he "got caught."
Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre said Morneau suggested farmers, plumbers and other small business owners were a "privileged few" who exploited the tax regime while he used a "loophole" to his own financial benefit.
Call for apology
"We now learn that this finance minister used a loophole, putting millions of shares he was otherwise banned from owning into a numbered company in Alberta in order to continue to earn millions of dollars," he said. "Now that this hypocrisy is exposed, doesn't he think it's time to apologize to those business owners he slandered?"
NDP ethics critic Nathan Cullen suggested Morneau stood to profit by $2 million in just five days after C-27 was tabled, as Morneau Shepell stock jumped by 4.8 per cent after the bill was introduced.
"The minister constantly talks about serving the public, but how does pocketing millions of dollars as the minister do anything but serve himself?" he asked.
Morneau responded that the sale of his shares will take place through an independent process and that he will have no knowledge of what the proceeds will or won't be.
The NDP said it made the calculation based on the value of Morneau Shepell shares as of Oct. 19, 2016, when Morneau tabled the bill, and their increased value as of Oct. 24, 2016.
The NDP calculation is based on a 2015 disclosure from the company that Morneau held 2.2 million shares, though Morneau said Thursday he now holds just one million shares.
Morneau told CBC News Network's Power & Politics that he sold some shares before taking office.
"And my reason, I'm thinking back because, although it's only been two years, we've been working pretty hard on other things for Canada, was just that I wanted to do that for my personal planning," told guest host Chris Hall.
Morneau also said he is "not sure" if the share values spiked after C-27 was tabled.
"I just have no idea what happened at any particular time with those share values, I just don't know the answer to that," he said.
At an event Thursday at a farm in eastern Ontario to announce the government would take a "step back" from another of its contentious tax reform proposals this morning, Morneau faced more tough questions about his own personal wealth and how he managed assets after being appointed to Justin Trudeau's cabinet.
Morneau conceded the ethics controversy has become a "distraction," but said he took guidance from the ethics watchdog.
'Followed ... advice'
"I followed that advice very carefully because I wanted to make sure I could do the work I'm doing," he said.
Dawson said this week that she did not advise Morneau not to put the assets in a blind trust, but did tell him it was not specifically required under current rules.
"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," she said.
In question period Wednesday, Trudeau defended Morneau's decision not to put tens of millions of dollars' worth of shares in his company into a blind trust before joining the cabinet.
Today, during an event in Roberval, Que., he backed him again, saying he followed the rules but could also take extra steps.
Company owns French villa
CBC News has also reported that for two years Morneau failed to disclose to the federal ethics commissioner that he and his wife are partners in the private company that owns a family villa.
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.