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What do you mean the word "ethics" doesn't appear in the Conflict of Interest Act? - (Sort of) Liveblogging the Ethics Committee

Kady O'Malley, CBC News

8:36:32 AM Greetings, fans of slightly time-delayed semi-livebloggish reporting! As noted yesterday, at the moment, I'm not yet able to post just-this-side-of-realtime dispatches from the parliamentary front, but the girl who sat through a seven-hour filibuster over the in-and-out affair isn't going to let a niggling detail like that stop her from covering what could turn out to be a surprisingly lively Ethics meeting. Yes, I'm back at Ethics -- oh, how I've missed it -- and on the agenda today is an appearance by the commissioner herself, Mary Dawson (last seen -- or at least liveblogged -- before the finale Oliphant policy forum over at the University of Ottawa.

This morning, she'll be discussing her annual report on the Code of Conduct for Public Office Holders, which I confess to not actually having re-read before scrambling my way here to the Hill this morning, so the contents will be just as much of a surprise to me as to any committee members who failed to do their homework last night.

Anyway, since this is a timed-release post, I'm going to stick to the highlights of today's meeting rather than making you all sit through sadly dated second-by-second coverage; I should warn any of y'all who aren't familiar with my usual practice of committee journalizing that my definition of "highlights" doesn't always correspond with that of my colleagues. Don't worry; you'll get used to it. Probably.

8:49:33 AM
Before we get down to business, here's the lineup for today: Over on the government side, we have Pierre Poilievre leading the troops for Team Blue; the troops in question will be comprised of Kelly Block, Patricia Davidson, Greg Rickford and Bob Dechert, and you're allowed to have no idea who two -- but not *more* than two -- of those people are.

On the opposition side, meanwhile, we have Borys W. and Michelle Simson up for the Liberals, Carole Freeman and Luc Desnoyers for the Bloc Quebecois, and New Democrat Bill Siksay.

Also, Chairman Paul Szabo -- bless his heart -- is worried that,we-the-media, may be expecting fireworks that are unlikely to ensue; I assured him that I'm here because of my longstanding obsession with ethics legislation, although I can't speak for any of the rest of the reporters in attendance.

Right now, the commissioner is being pre-scrummed by Colleague Van Dusen, who - not surprisingly - wants to know more details about the commissioner's possibly soon to be ongoing investigation into Lisa Raitt UPDATE: le cheque affair, it turns out, not Raitt. (Darn inaudibility!)

Unfortunately, she's so very soft-spoken -- Mary Dawson, that is, not Colleague Van Dusen -- that I wasn't able to pick up most of her reply, but my guess would be that she wasn't willing to say much. Which, of course, is entirely appropriate -- there's nothing that lands an independent officer of Parliament in hot water faster than being the slightest bit interesting while on camera.

9:06:33 AM And with that, the meeting is about to get underway. Remember, I won't be liveblogging every moment, so don't expect my usual manic attention to detail, but I promise to give you the gist.

9:09:37 AM Last minute switch on the Conservative side: Harold Albrecht will be filling in for Kelly Block, and Dean Allison for Bob Dechert. Also, and Pierre Poilievre is here, although very nearly late, and don't you have an office over at Langevin now, mister? That's a 30 second little green bus ride away. Max.

9:12:34 AM Okay, having dealt with some boring bit of housekeeping business related to the schedule, the chair hands the floor over to Dawson, and since this isn't going up til later, I can totally steal her thunder by skimming through the (very helpfully provided) speaking notes for her opening statement, and report that over the last year, she has conducted three "examinations" related to reporting public office holders, (PoHs) and there were "four other instances" where MPs "raised concerns" about potential contraventions of the Act (that's right, this is the *Act*, not the *Code*, and yes, it IS ridiculously confusing to have both of them). Anyway, after having the law explained to them, those unnamed MPs decided not to proceed with formal requests.

As for penalties, earlier this month, she imposed one administrative monetary penalty -- which can go up to $500 -- for "failure to report the holding of an office in the corporation".

Her recommendations: consider revising the rules on the prohibition on PoHs holding "controlled assets"; tighten up the reporting requirements for post-employment reporting; and finally, allow the commissioner to make public her reasons for *not* pursuing a particular issue or complaint as a self-initiated examination. Oh, and she can't discuss an ongoing investigation; the final report will be made public, and that's that.

9:23:25 AM Over to Borys, who waxes all philosophical on the "great public debate" that is brewing over "misrepresentations around phony cheques" -- is that within her mandate, he wonders?

She will be undertaking an investigation, Dawson tells him -- she just doesn't know exactly how she'll handle it; she's still waiting for the promised requests to arrive. Apparently, there are fifty or so that she's expecting to land, and once that happens, she'll figure out whether she can do one general investigation.

She'd also like to remind us all that, although the word "ethics" appears in her title, it doesn't show up in the code itself, so she's not sure how far her jurisdiction extends.

Is this a void in the Act, Borys wonders -- and, if it is, could the committee look at ways to improve it? Borys then wanders down a potentially dangerous alley, noting that "as many as fifty of [his]colleagues on the government side" could be implicated, which sends Pierre Poilievre into his usual snit about whether it's off limits for the committee to discuss non-Public Office Holders (i.e. Members of Parliament), and oh my heavens, did *anyone* not think about how insanely complicated and confusing this would inevitably become by making MPs *not* subject to the same rules as PoHs? Because it so is.

Anyway, Borys comes back with a very pointed question about the appropriateness of *committee members* who may or may not have been involved in the handing out of oversized novelty cheques, and eventually, the chair has to intervene and re-explain the rules, as far as this particular committee's mandate, and how anything related to MPs goes to Procedure and House Affairs -- as long as it doesn't implode and be incapable of holding a meeting for nine months, which is what happened during the in-and-out impasse, but I digress. (Speaking of which, guess what committee is meeting later this morning?)

9:37:04 AM Over to Carole Freeman, who has a more general question for the commissioner -- what does she see as her role, as far as monitoring ethics? It's unclear, Dawson admits -- as she mentioned earlier, the word "ethics" doesn't appear in the Code (or the Act), but she still deals with ethical matters.

Her mandate is to administer the Act (and the Code) and help PoHs comply with it, as well as investigate and report on possible violations. Freeman worries that her mandate is too limited; the public sees her as the ethics commissioner (lowercase intended), yet she apparently can't investigate all potential ethical breaches. Not surprisingly, Dawson disagrees -- well, not that her mandate is limited, but that it is excessively so.

9:42:56 AM When does the Federal Accountability Act come up for its five year statutory review? 2012? That should be fascinating. Meanwhile, Bill Siksay wonders if there are any countries out there with more rigourous ethics codes (or acts), and Dawson confesses that there likely are, but she's not prepared to give a 'dissertation' on the subject at the moment. She'll dig around and get back to him.

Siksay then brings up her investigation into Colin Watson, and wonders whether the definition of "friend" should be made a little ambiguous; she doesn't seem to think that's terribly necessary, as this was an unusual case, in which Watson repeatedly referred to someone as a "friend" despite the fact that it wasn't really the case.

9:50:34 AM Over to the government side, and Patricia Davidson, who tells Dawson that she's new to this committee; she, too, is intrigued by the commissioner's observation on her limited mandate to address ethical issues. Are there particular matters that she feels she *doesn't* have the power to investigate?

Dawson is a bit taken aback by the question -- she's not talking about ethical issues like, say, abortion, she notes -- and she can't think of any particular ethical matters that she'd like to examine, but doesn't have the power.

9:53:34 AM A few more questions from Davidson on the office administration front -- longtime Ethics committee watchers/liveblog followers will recall that Dawson has had some difficulty hiring and retaining staff -- before she moves onto the question of compliance in general, and whether some people just *forget* to update their post-employment disclosures when they move from one position to another.

9:58:34 AM Hey, it's a question from the chair! Actually, a series of questions, most of which seem designed to put certain parts of the report on the record, including the fact that the ministerial guidelines currently in place require undated letters of resignation. No, I'm not sure where he was going with that line of not-actually-questioning either, but you never know when that sort of footnote might turn out to be relevant in future.

10:04:19 AM Michelle Simson asks whether, if she had her druthers, the commissioner would raise the administrative monetary penalties, and Dawson sighs -- she really doesn't like to focus on punishment; she'd prefer to concentrate on compliance, although she does think that disclosure -- of wrongdoing, that is -- is the best incentive.

Undaunted, Greg Rickford wants to know whether she would extend the penalty framework to cover other violations, such as offers of employment, or other areas not currently covered. It doesn't sound like she does, although she notes that actually, her office isn't able to check any of these disclosures, with the exception of being late in filing, or reporting of gifts.

10:12:12 AM
Bloc MP Luc Desnoyers has heard enough -- he just doesn't think she has the power to keep public office holders on the straight and narrow, at least as far as ethical behaviour, what with the word not actually appearing in the Act.

Not surprisingly, she disagrees -- I've rarely seen an officer of Parliament so uninterested in wrangling more power, really. Desnoyers wonders if she works in cooperation with the Lobbying Commission, since the rules overlap as far as the ban on post-employment lobbying; she doesn't, since there are confidentiality rules that protect the privacy of her clients during the advisory process.

10:16:46 AM And this, readers, is why it's a good idea not to ask what you think is a safe leading question: Poilievre points out that the Act has been in force for two years, and asks Dawson, point blank, if it's working.

And the answer? She's -- not sure, actually, and she tries somewhat clumsily to explain why: there are just so many things that her office doesn't -- and can't -- know, like how many gifts are never disclosed.

10:21:10 AM
Siksay comes up with the bright idea of asking PCO to provide the current guidelines for ministers, and perhaps even appear before the committee to help them fully understand the rules, and Szabo concurs. Also, Borys wonders about the $200 fine that she imposed on a minister who was -- albeit inadvertently -- violation of the Act; does she really think that was sufficient punishment, he asks. Well, yes -- as she reminds him, she imposed it, and she could have gone as high as $500.

Borys gets snippy when this provokes giggles on the government side, and then tries in vain to get Dawson to share her thoughts upon first laying eyes on that now iconic photo of Gerald Keddy and the Giant Cheque, which she obviously doesn't, and is instead forced to remind him -- repeatedly -- that She Can't Talk About Stuff Like That. Sheesh.

10:27:45 AM
After a brief round of questions from Dechert, who must have wandered in, on Dawson's recommendation on the RRSP/controlled asset prohibition, Szabo brings up what he sees as an important development on the ethics front: as per the federal court ruling in a recent case on alleged influence, the judge found that there doesn't have to be proof that a public office holder was influenced, but only that there was an an *attempt* made to so.

This leads to a very confusing exchange between Szabo and one of the commissioner's senior staff, Nancy Belanger, that leaves everyone, including the chair, looking somewhat confused at the end. Finally, Szabo manages to make his point about the loophole in ministerial responsibility that ultimately puts the prime minister -- or, at least, PCO -- in charge of administrating its own rules for ministers, which, as he points out, includes the political activities of public office holders and yes, cheques. We're discussing giant cheques, and how they're almost certainly not within her mandate.

10:37:10 AM Ooh! Apparently, there's an opening on November 17th -- as Szabo notes, that would be a perfect opening to bring forward the folks from PCO! The Conservatives are starting to look a little alarmed by this; one of them suggests that they go in camera to discuss this, but Szabo doesn't seem to be leaning that way.

First, though, the final questions from Freeman and Borys. Freeman wants to know exactly what Dawson is asking for, as far as having the power to reveal why she won't proceed with an investigation, even in cases that are all over the media, and she explains that she'd just like to be able to explain her reasoning: Sometimes, it may be because it's outside her mandate, which is very different from, for instance, not finding sufficient evidence to proceed.

10:42:53 AM Worth filing away in the huh cubbyhole: both the complainant and the complainee are informed of her decision by letter, but they can choose not to release it. (It's not clear whether both have to comply, or just one.)

10:44:28 AM
One more attempt to make this meeting all about the giant cheques, courtesy of Borys - of course - he asks again whether Conservative members could be in a conflict of interest if they continue to sit on the committee after it begins an investigation into the practice.

Dawson points out that would be covered by the code, not the act, and doesn't seem to have an answer; the Conservative members in question, on the other hand, appear to have plenty of thoughts - or at least angry muttering noises -- to share with their Liberal colleague.

10:49:42 AM
After a long and hopefully cathartic vent about the "merry-go-round" of responsible officers of parliament, Szabo dismisses the witnesses, and invites Siksay to speak on his proposal that the ministerial guidelines be provided by PCO. He offers to give notice, but it turns out, that's not necessary -- the Conservatives are willing to give consent - yes, that *was* a pleasant surprise - which means that we'll get to hear from PCO on November 17th, or thereabouts. Ooh. That could be interesting.

10:52:57 AM And that's it for today's Ethics antics -- once again, I'm sorry for not being able to bring it to y'all in realtime, but since I ended up liveblogging all the way through, I'm hoping you'll forgive me. It's just a temporary thing. (And for those of you who now have Lou Reed stuck in your head -- you're welcome. C'mon, it's an awesome song.)

UPDATE (6:50 PM)

Don't pop the champagne corks yet, but ...

Ethics and Conflict of Interest Commissioner Mary Dawson has confirmed that she's going ahead with an investigation into the raft of monogrammed and -- on at least two occasions -- party logo-festooned cheques that Conservative MPs have been handing out to lucky local recipients of stimulus-related government largesse.

Political Bytes would strongly advise that opposition parties hold back on the celebrations, however: During this morning's meeting -- liveblogged here -- Dawson didn't seem entirely convinced that the matter would fall within her somewhat limited mandate; as she pointed out more than once, although her title does include the word 'ethics', it doesn't appear in the Conflict of Interest Act  or the Code of Conduct for MPs. (Nor, incidentally, does the word "partisan", which is the favoured term by opposition members to describe such behaviour by government MPs.)

So, who actually is in charge of making sure MPs play by the rules when it comes to cheque presentation protocol? That's what committee members were grumbling about, and as far as  PB can tell, they may have a point: If it comes down to an alleged breach of ministerial guidelines, it would be Treasury Board -- or, depending on the situation, Privy Council -- that would be responsible for administering the rules. Somehow, it seems unlikely that the respective responsible ministers -- Vic Toews, and Stephen Harper -- would leap at the opportunity to launch a sweeping investigation into the actions of their own caucus and cabinet members.