Ethics czar wants power to fine MP offenders
OTTAWA - The federal ethics commissioner wants more freedom to speak out about investigations and to levy financial penalties under the Conflict of Interest Act.
Mary Dawson's recommendations are part of a mandatory five-year review of the act by Parliament.
In a written submission to the House of Commons privacy and ethics committee, Dawson complains that she can fine MPs when they miss reporting deadlines, but not when she finds clear breaches of conflict rules.
Dawson says she wants the power to impose financial penalties for infractions, such failing to report gifts or for engaging in prohibited outside activities.
Such activities could include public office holders — including cabinet ministers — lobbying arms-length tribunals such as the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission.
Dawson recently reproached Finance Minister Jim Flaherty for writing to the CRTC to advocate for a radio licence application from a business in his riding.
The Conservative government maintains that Flaherty was simply acting in his role as an MP, something Section 64 of the Conflict of Interest Act says is allowed.
"Nothing in this act prohibits a member of the Senate or the House of Commons who is a public office holder, as a minister, or former public office holder from engaging in those activities that he or she would normally carry out as a member of the Senate or the House of Commons," Peter Van Loan, the government House leader, recited in the Commons this earlier week.
Dawson, in a brief interview Wednesday, said the act does contain conflicting language and needs to be read as a whole.
But she was clear that Section 64 cannot be used to permit cabinet members and other public office holders to lobby independent government tribunals.
"You can't have Section 64 superseding everything in the act," Dawson told The Canadian Press.
The commissioner said she "would not consider such letters normal activity for a minister."
Section 9 of the act prohibits ministers from using their position to try to influence decisions when doing so would improperly advance another person's private interests.
And guidelines issued by the Prime Minister's Office say cabinet members should not intervene in licence decisions of tribunals such as the CRTC.
Dawson was to have presented her recommendations to the committee Wednesday afternoon but the hearing was cancelled due to late voting in the House of Commons.
Instead, her office posted her 84-page report and her planned speaking notes to the ethics commissioner's website.
Dawson recommends that the value limit for gifts to MPs that must be reported be lowered to $30 from $200.
She'd like to have more latitude to permit MPs to engage in some outside activities and to hold controlled assets, as long as she publicly reported each exemption.
And Dawson argues that she'd like to be able to address "misinformation put into the public domain in relation to investigative work."
Currently the commissioner only comments upon completed investigations, but she'd like the chance to clear the air as issues or allegations arise.
"I therefore recommend that the commissioner be given express authority to comment where appropriate, especially in order to correct misinformation," her prepared notes say.
One common example is when MPs publicly direct an allegation to the ethics commissioner for investigation, which usually sparks news reports. If the allegation is unsubstantiated or an investigation is dropped for some reason, Dawson says she'd like to be able to explain why.