Alberta ethics boss urges $100 cap on gifts

The Alberta legislature on Feb. 26, 2016. Wes Rosa, Global News

EDMONTON – Alberta’s ethics commissioner is urging that provincial laws be changed so politicians are banned from accepting any hospitality gifts from lobbyists that exceed $100.

Marguerite Trussler says a cap tied to events or food is easy to understand and to enforce.

“That leaves nothing to interpretation,” Trussler said Tuesday to an all-party legislature committee tasked with recommending changes to election, campaign and conflict-of-interest rules.

“You know the exact amount. And it does allow lobbyists to still offer modest hospitality to members.”

Currently, politicians can accept gifts worth up to $200 each, along with event invitations up to a maximum of $400 a year. The ethics commissioner can also approve event invites over the $400.

READ MORE: Alberta NDP looking to cap election spending

In her written submission to the committee, Trussler said three out of every four calls she gets from MLAs on gifts relate to lobbyists.

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“Directly excluding giving of more expensive gifts by lobbyists would go a long ways towards reducing perceptions that members are being, or are able to be, influenced by lobbyists,” she wrote.

The current gift rules raised questions under the former Progressive Conservative government, before Trussler’s tenure, when government members were given the green light for everything from fishing trips to rounds of golf to helicopter rides and hotel rooms, paid for by companies.

Trussler noted the $100 limit would still allow for “meet-and-greet” events followed by lunch or light dinner.

“For the most part, lobbyists seeking the attention of individual members should be meeting with them in their offices.”

READ MORE: Freebies abound for Alberta politicians in 2014

The cap is one of many suggestions made by Trussler to the Select Special Ethics and Accountability Committee, which will have its recommendations eventually submitted for debate in the legislature.

Trussler also recommended that a one-year cooling-off period for former cabinet ministers be doubled to two years before they can take jobs as lobbyists.

“A one-year cooling-off period is too short as former ministers still have considerable contacts and influence within their former departments,” Trussler wrote.

She also said that, to avoid conflicts of interest, former cabinet ministers should be required to get approval from the ethics commissioner before accepting any job during the cooling-off period.

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Trussler also said her office needs more freedom to inform the public when and why it is working on an investigation.

And she said it needs access to documents otherwise protected under legal privilege.

There is a way to balance the confidentiality of such documents while also making them available to investigators, she said, citing the recent case of former premier Alison Redford.

In 2010, Redford was in charge of the Justice Department when it awarded a contract to sue Big Tobacco to a firm that included her ex-husband.

Then-ethics commissioner Neil Wilkinson cleared Redford of conflict of interest, but the case was reopened after it was discovered that Wilkinson did not have access to documents protected under solicitor-client privilege.

READ MORE: Government launches review of 2013 Redford conflict-of-interest investigation

British Columbia’s conflict-of-interest commissioner is now reviewing the Redford file.

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