PM's gifts pile up without clear rules

The Prime Minister's Office is trying to find homes for hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of gifts to Stephen Harper because the government has never enacted clear regulations on what should happen to such items destined to be Crown property, CBC News has learned.

Attic of 24 Sussex Drive becomes storage site for luxury items forfeited to Crown

The Prime Minister's Office is trying to find homes for hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of gifts to Stephen Harper because the government has never enacted clear regulations on what should happen to such items destined to be Crown property, CBC News has learned.

While a few are on display in Harper's offices and in the reception areas of his official residence, most are in storage in the attic of his official residence at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa.

A diamond-and-sapphire necklace and matching earrings given to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's wife, Laureen, by Saudi King Abdullah are in the attic of the prime minister's official residence at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa. (CBC)
Four years ago, the Conservative government passed a new Conflict of Interest Act, which included a public registry for all gifts given to public office holders.

According to the rules, which form part of the Federal Accountability Act, all gifts over $200 must be declared to the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner. All presents worth more than $1,000 must be forfeited to the Crown.

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson, who administers the Act, as well as the code of conduct for MPs, told CBC News the gifts are supposed to become government property.

A desk clock featuring a silver camel mounted on two large slabs of lapis lazuli with silver and gold palm trees is displayed in the attic of the prime minister's official residence. ((CBC))
"The rules are not terribly defined as to what happens to forfeited goods, as far as I can make out," Dawson said. "My understanding is that each department deals with the forfeited goods in the way that they determine. I believe that they deal with them in quite different ways."

On his website, the prime minister discourages Canadians from sending him presents and suggests citizens direct their goodwill to charities and other good causes. But exchanging gifts is routine among world leaders and Harper regularly declares those items with Dawson's office. 

Gifts include $30K watches, jewelry

Unlike the U.S. Federal Register, the Canadian government's list does not give an estimated value of the gifts or say where they are. But over the past five years, Harper has handed in 29 gifts, including several pricey watches, pens and extravagant sets of jewelry.

Attempts by CBC News to track down those items turned into a three-week odyssey of being bounced from department to department.

We started at Library and Archives Canada. Our first check resulted in an email from their public relations department saying the organization "does not have any responsibility for the final destination of these objects."

Past prime ministers

Finding the whereabouts of forfeited gifts to Prime Minister Stephen Harper was hard enough, but it's proving even more difficult to determine what happened to the pricey items given to former prime ministers.   

The director general of Library and Archives Canada said his organization jealously guards all of Canada's documentary heritage, including the documents and papers of previous prime ministers. Fabian Langellé told CBC News it is very possible some of those documents could have been gifts. Langellé said the archives have interpreted the "forfeited to the Crown" section of the Conflict of Interest Act to mean the receiving institution, or department, must handle the material.   

Library and Archives Canada sometimes receives a box of items left behind when a prime minister leaves office, Langellé said. In those cases, his organization tries to find an appropriate home for the gifts. Among the collections at Canada's currency museum are now a number of coins presented to former prime minister Brian Mulroney. In 1994 the archives also received a globe presented to Mulroney in 1987 from former French president François Mitterrand. 

Archives then advised checking with Dawson's office. Having just come from there, CBC News headed over to Heritage Canada, which assists Canadian officials in choosing appropriate gifts to give foreign dignitaries. Heritage Canada, too, said it had nothing to do with prime ministerial presents and suggested trying the Archives.

The Treasury Board also had no idea who would handle these gifts. So we went to the Privy Council Office and the Prime Minister's Office.

The PCO said one item, a priceless marble-covered handmade book bound with silk and gold thread, is now housed at the National Gallery of Canada. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gave the item to the prime minister last year at a G8 leaders' summit.

Most forfeited items, the PCO said, are at 24 Sussex and suggested we try the National Capital Commission, the organization in charge of official residences.

The NCC initially said it was not in possession of any items, although it later responded that it has one carpet in storage from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh . The NCC sent us back to PCO for more information on all the other items.

At that point, two weeks in, the prime minister's director of communications Dimitri Soudas called us in for a meeting.  He apologized for the runaround in getting an answer about the whereabouts of the government property and promised to provide an inventory of the gifts, as well as an exclusive tour.

Three days later, we found ourselves in the sweltering attic of 24 Sussex, looking over an amazing collection of gifts to Harper and his wife. Among them were sets of jewelry from Saudi King Abdullah on the occasion of his visit to Canada for the G20 meeting in Toronto last June.

A marble-covered handmade book bound with silk and gold thread, given to Prime Minister Stephen Harper by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, is now at the National Gallery of Canada. The book, called l'invenzione della bellezza, was designed by Italian carver Antonio Canova. ((Courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada) )
No one has appraised the raw ruby-and-diamond necklace, bracelet, earrings and ring or the matching set with diamonds and sapphires. But according to a two year-old news report in the Washington Post, King Abdullah gave former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice a similar ruby-and-diamond set valued at $165,000 U.S.

Also among the items in the attic of 24 Sussex Drive:

  • Two wristwatches, including a Harry Winston timepiece worth about $36,000;
  • A desk clock featuring a silver camel mounted on two large slabs of lapis lazuli with silver and gold palm trees;
  • Two S.T. Dupont pens from French President Nicholas Sarkozy and a hand-crafted pen from the Pope;
  • Four pastel drawings depicting the seasons from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger;
  • A mother-of-pearl carved depiction of The Last Supper;
  • A long grey plastic tube containing a narwhal tusk from the owner of the South Camp Inn in Resolute Bay, Nunavut.

Gifts could be in museum: PMO

It's not just the prime minister who receives gifts. Most cabinet ministers who travel overseas regularly receive presents from their counterparts.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon displays many of his in cabinets outside his Ottawa office, including a green briefcase containing a Hamilton men's watch, diamond and citrine jewelry set, a silver Tiffany fountain pen and Meyers Lady diamond wristwatch from Saudi King Abdullah. In his office, Cannon also displays a silver Chopard desk clock from his counterpart in the United Arab Emirates.

The prime minister discourages Canadians from sending him gifts, but the occasional item does make it into his home. Last summer, while Harper attended an event in Nova Scotia, local artist Janice Guinan presented him with a painting that tapped into several of his favourite things. Guinan painted a fluffy grey-and-white kitten sitting on the sheet music for the Beatles' With a Little Help From My Friends.

Next to the kitten on the piano keyboard is a white rose and a red maple leaf. A spokesperson from Harper's office said when he brought the artwork home to Ottawa, his daughter Rachel asked if it could hang in her room.   

Harper and his wife, Laureen, are particularly fond of cats and regularly foster the animals at their official residence in Ottawa. The prime minister also plays the piano. In October 2009, he famously sang and tickled the ivories to the Beatles' song at the National Art Centre.

Some ministers don't report anything. Despite his regular travels, a spokesperson for International Trade Minister Peter Van Loan said the minister has not declared anything on the public gifts registry since taking over the portfolio because he has not received anything worth more than $200.

In an interview with CBC News, Dawson was asked whether the gifts registry operates as an honour system.   

"Pretty well, yes," she said. "But we know that certain people receive lots of gifts and we certainly have taken a look from time to time at whether somebody is not reporting any gifts."

Designated public office holders must also declare gifts. In the last two years, Gen. Walter Natynczyk, Canada's chief of defence staff, has made 14 declarations on the gift registry, including a Maori club from New Zealand's chief of defence.

MPs also must declare gifts under their code of conduct. In 2010, Bloc Québécois MP Michel Guimond declared two golf memberships. One is worth more than $1,000, but Guimond says he asked for and received permission from the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner to keep it. Last year, Liberal Deputy Leader Ralph Goodale reported accepting two tickets to attend the 2009 Grey Cup in Calgary.

PMO spokeswoman Sara MacIntyre said the National Capital Commission has been instructed to draft policies on how to handle these items and ensure they end up in the right hands. 

"So we're right now trying to work with them to try and maybe find homes at a museum," MacIntyre said. "I know the Museum of Civilization is actually going to be coming by to take a look at a number of these items and see if they can find homes so Canadians can see what's been presented to the government."

Officials are also open to hearing ideas from ordinary Canadians, she said. The National Capital Commission can be contacted at info@ncc-ccn.ca.