As Ottawa’s ethics watchdog began digging into a preliminary review of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent vacation, a second letter hit her desk expressing concern over whether the prime minister broke federal conflict of interest laws by vacationing on a private Bahamian island.
The most recent letter – the second the commissioner has received this week – came from Alberta MP and Conservative ethics critic Blaine Calkins.
He’s asked Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson to look specifically into how Trudeau and his family made it from the airport in Nassau to the island belonging to the Aga Khan – whose foundation receives millions in funding from the federal government. Trudeau has long considered the Aga Khan a family friend.
“The Conflict of Interest Act has a very clear requirement that public office holders not accept travel from private aircraft,” Calkins wrote in his letter dated Jan. 11.
For security reasons, prime ministers must travel using the government’s Challenger jet, which took Trudeau and his family to Nassau. But to get from Nassau to the island, they flew in the Aga Khan’s private helicopter, the prime minister told reporters Thursday afternoon.
WATCH: Justin Trudeau addresses vacation on Aga Khan’s private island
The law states the prime minister (as well as ministers, ministers of state and parliamentary secretaries), his family, advisers or staff can not accept trips on non-commercial chartered or private aircraft, but there are exceptions.
Public office holders can board private planes if doing so is required in the capacity of their job or “in exceptional circumstances or with the prior approval of the commissioner.”
Because the Aga Khan’s island is private, there is likely no way to get there from Nassau aside from a private aircraft.
Trudeau said he doesn’t believe there should be an issue with his use of the Aga Khan’s helicopter, but he’ll answer any questions the ethics commissioner has about it.
“In light of the many unanswered questions and the serious concerns they raise I think that it is important that you open a full investigation,” Calkins’ letter concludes.
Details of Trudeau’s vacation have been coming in dribs and drabs, his office appearing hesitant to divulge even basic details at first, such as the area where the family was vacationing.
Earlier this week, the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed the friends Trudeau brought along on the vacation included Liberal MP Seamus O’Regan and his husband, Steve Doussis, and Liberal Party president Anna Gainey and her husband, Tom Pitfield, who is president of the Liberal-linked think-tank Canada 2020.
In an interview with the National Post, O’Regan denied any government business was discussed while he was on the island.
Trudeau’s spokesman said no other MPs or designated public office holders were on the trip, and no one except for the Trudeaus flew on the Challenger jet. He also said the prime minister will, as is customary, refund taxpayers the equivalent of economy air fares to and from Nassau.
The first letter to Dawson, sent earlier this week, asked her to determine whether the free vacation to a private island is considered a “private gift … given to him by a private individual.”
“We need to know if it is appropriate for Trudeau to accept gifts from someone whose foundation receives funds from the Government of Canada,” Conservative MP and leadership candidate Andrew Scheer said after releasing his letter.
WATCH: Trudeau, his family and some friends spent the holidays on a private island owned by the Aga Khan, hereditary spiritual leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims and a long-time Trudeau family friend.
Dawson’s office confirmed the commissioner has launched a preliminary review in response to Scheer’s request.
The potential penalties for breaking the law enacted in the Conflict of Interest Act are minimal. A breach of some sections comes with a penalty of $500, though many have no penalty, financial or otherwise. After concluding an investigation, the commissioner publishes a report either clearing or admonishing the subject.
Trudeau told reporters this week he’s ready and willing to answer any questions the commissioner may have for him.
What is the potential conflict?
Between 2012 and 2017, the Aga Khan Foundation Canada received $75 million from Global Affairs Canada to fund the Partnership for Advancing Human Development in Africa and Asia and $40 million between 2012 and 2015 for improving maternal, newborn and child health in Afghanistan, according to Charity Intelligence Canada.
The same site notes the foundation will be receiving $55 million from 2016 to 2020 for Global Affairs’ Health Action Plan for Afghanistan project.
WATCH: His Highness The Aga Khan receives Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship
Scheer asked the ethics commissioner to investigate whether the invitation to the private island constitutes a gift and if Trudeau, in accepting the offer, violated any provisions in the act.
The Aga Khan, the hereditary spiritual leader of the world’s approximately 15 million Ismaili Muslims and a renowned philanthropist, invited Trudeau, his family and a few friends to Bell Island.
The Aga Khan founded one of the world’s largest development agencies, the Aga Khan Development Network, dedicated to enhancing progress in underdeveloped regions of the world.
In 2009, then-prime minister Stephen Harper bestowed honorary citizenship on the Aga Khan.