MONTREAL – Justin Trudeau says his national campaign co-chairman had no choice but to resign after he provided advice to an oil pipeline company on how to lobby a new federal government, only days before the election.
Dan Gagnier, a member of the Liberal leader’s inner circle, stepped down Wednesday after a report by The Canadian Press revealed he sent a detailed email to officials at TransCanada Corp.
Late Thursday, the Liberals said Gagnier had informed Trudeau’s campaign he had only been advising TransCanada about issues related to the Quebec government.
“When we found out that he was also consulting his client on questions concerning the transition at the federal level, we took the action that was necessary,” party spokesman Cameron Ahmad wrote in an email.
Earlier in the day, Trudeau called Gagnier’s actions “inappropriate” and “unacceptable.”
Gagnier was hired by TransCanada as a consultant in the spring to help it navigate different scenarios that could follow the federal election, company spokesman Tim Duboyce said Thursday.
At that time, Gagnier was already co-chairman of Trudeau’s campaign.
Trudeau, who came under fire from his opponents over the revelations, tried to shield his campaign Thursday from any potential political damage before Monday’s vote.
Initially, the Liberals stood by Gagnier’s email, insisting he hadn’t broken any ethical standards.
Trudeau, however, said Thursday he supported Gagnier’s decision to leave his campaign. Gagnier has said he wanted to avoid becoming a distraction.
“He acted in an inappropriate way a few days ago and when we found out about it, we sat down with him and he chose to do the responsible thing and step down from our campaign,” Trudeau said at an event in north-end Montreal.
“It’s a way of demonstrating the fact that we take ethical standards and responsibilities extremely seriously.”
Trudeau later added that Gagnier will remain off his team “for the long-term future.”
He also defended Gagnier, saying he has a long history of working with governments and has always behaved in a responsible way.
It remains to be seen whether the Gagnier revelations will affect Trudeau’s campaign, which recent polls have suggested has been building momentum.
TransCanada has launched an internal investigation to determine how the email leaked out to the media, Duboyce said.
The company is behind the Energy East project, which has stirred considerable controversy among many Quebecers who have concerns about its potential environmental effects. Some question whether the pipeline will provide significant economic benefits to the province.
Prior to Gagnier’s resignation, a Liberal spokeswoman tried to defuse the situation Wednesday by saying his analysis in the email had “nothing to do with his volunteer role on the campaign.”
Trudeau said Thursday that Gagnier did not consult the party on its energy policy because he had clients in many different sectors.
“We are well aware of the challenge of perceptions in politics and of the challenges the Liberal party has had to address in the past,” Trudeau said.
“That’s why we took immediate action to say that this action was unacceptable, inappropriate and Mr. Gagnier fully assumes the responsibility for his actions and stepped down.”
Trudeau’s main rivals, who were both campaigning Thursday in Quebec, pounced on the news about Gagnier.
Both Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair tried to link the revelations to the sponsorship scandal, in which advertising agencies in Quebec received millions for little or no work. Some of the cash was kicked back to Liberal operatives.
Emails sent by Gagnier, a key Liberal adviser in Quebec, show that he gave advice to TransCanada on how and when to lobby a new government – including a Liberal minority.
“I think it’s an extraordinary opportunity for everyone in Canada, including in Quebec, to remember that this is the same old Liberal party of the sponsorship scandal,” said Mulcair, who noted Trudeau has appeared on stage alongside former prime ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin during the campaign.
“It’s not by putting a coat of paint on a rusty old car that you’re going to change anything about what’s underneath.”
Harper, whose Tories have promoted the Energy East project, also seized the opportunity to go after the Liberals.
“I think we should all understand that the culture of the Liberal party that gave us the sponsorship scandal has not changed and it will not change,” Harper said.
Liberal supporters at the event in Montreal’s Ahuntsic-Cartierville riding said the news about Gagnier had no impact on their confidence in Trudeau.
At one point during the news conference, Trudeau turned around to hush his own partisans who groaned in frustration when a reporter asked him about his party’s decision to initially back Gagnier in the hours after the story broke.
“Hey, we have respect for journalists in this country, they ask tough questions and they are supposed to. OK?” Trudeau said before turning back to take the question.
WATCH ABOVE: Trudeau silences boos after Gagnier mentioned, defends ‘tough questions’ journalists have to ask
The Liberals’ star local candidate, a former Montreal mayoral hopeful, volunteered with Gagnier in the war room for Trudeau’s leadership bid.
“The Liberal party and people in general are just asking for the highest standards in terms of ethics and the fact that he decided to resign was the right decision in the circumstances,” Melanie Joly told The Canadian Press after the Trudeau event.
When asked whether she spoke with Gagnier during the campaign, Joly replied that she had been focused on winning Ahuntsic-Cartierville.
Later Thursday, Trudeau visited the backyard of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair. He met local Liberal supporters at a bar in Montreal’s Outremont riding, the seat held by Mulcair at dissolution and a former Liberal stronghold.