Inside Politics

Do ethics watchdog's comments bode ill for media-misleading MPs?

As we wait to find out whether Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson will find sufficient grounds to reopen the matter of the Pat Martin Defence Fund in response to a request from Conservative MP Erin O'Toole, her comments before committee yesterday may shed some light on her feelings towards MPs who attempt to use her office -- and her advice -- as both sword and shield on the political battlefield.
During a Q&A session with ethics members on the Conflict of Interest Act, Dawson confessed that one of the "most problematic areas" with which she has had to contend under the current regime is when MPs release complaints to the press "before they've told me they've put them in ... and before the person that is complained about knows about it."

This isn't the first time that Dawson has expressed frustration over preemptive public comments by complaint-filing MPs. 

In her written submission to the procedure and house affairs committee on the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of Parliament last May, she brought up the same concern.

In fact, as part of her recommendations, she suggested that the Code be amended "to require that Members requesting an inquiry refrain from commenting publicly on the request until the Commissioner has confirmed that he or she has received the request, and has notified the person who is the subject of that request." (Her submission on the Act includes a virtually identically worded proposal.)

If adopted, that change would almost certainly prohibit the sort of publicity campaign that the Conservative Party launched over the weekend trumpeting O'Toole's request, which, according to the commissioner's office, wasn't actually received until Monday, a full day after it hit the headlines.

Interestingly, Dawson also vented her annoyance at unnamed MPs who, in her words, have "gone out and said they've taken something to the ethics commissioner, and 'She said it was just fine,' and I haven't." To that end, she wants the current confidentiality restrictions loosened just enough to allow her to counter such assertions in public.

Whether or not that comment may have been directed, in part, at Martin and his party over their repeated reassurances that the commissioner gave the green light to the extraparliamentary legal fundraising before the trust had even been set up, we'll almost certainly never know -- but if MPs accept her recommendations, she might be able to set the record straight in the future. 

In any case, under the current Code, Dawson has 15 days to determine whether or not there are grounds to pursue a full inquiry based on O'Toole's request, at which point she will inform both members - in writing - of her decision in a statement that can subsequently be released to the press, should either - or both - MP choose to do so.

If, however, the commissioner determines that a request "was frivolous, vexatious or not made in good faith," she is obliged to state that fact in a publicly released report, and "may recommend that action be considered against the Member who made the request."

It's worth noting that, so far, Dawson has never felt the need to take that step, but she does seem to be getting tougher the further she gets into her mandate -- that is, if her strongly worded orders barring Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and parliamentary secretaries Eve Adams and Colin Carrie from communicating with quasi-judicial bodies like the CRTC are any indication. 

Given that recent trend, MPs from all sides might want to think twice before alerting the press to a complaint before the ink has even dried on the letter of request -- and, for that matter, about attributing comments to her office that may not entirely or accurately represent the substance of her confidential advice.

After all, no one -- or, at least, no one under her jurisdiction -- wants a cranky ethics watchdog on patrol.

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