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Ethics watchdog has ‘concerns’ about potential conflict for Morneau on pension bill

Earlier this month, Bill Morneau conceded he continued to own “about a million” shares in MSI all through his term as finance minister, though, last week, he vowed to sell all those shares.
Earlier this month, Bill Morneau conceded he continued to own “about a million” shares in MSI all through his term as finance minister, though, last week, he vowed to sell all those shares. Ben Nelms/The Canadian Press

OTTAWA – Parliament’s ethics watchdog appears ready to add her bark to those already baying that Finance Minister Bill Morneau ran afoul of conflict-of-interest rules.

On the same day that Mary Dawson, the House of Commons Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, met with Morneau to go over his financial affairs, she responded to a letter by an NDP MP who had asked her to open up a formal investigation to determine if Morneau broke federal conflict-of-interest laws when he sponsored some legislation that, if passed, would have helped his family business Morneau Shepell Inc. (MSI), a business which was sending him a $65,000-a-month dividend cheque.

Earlier this month, Morneau conceded he continued to own “about a million” shares in MSI all through his term as finance minister, though, last week, he vowed to sell all those shares.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen has argued that it is a “blatant” conflict-of-interest for the finance minister to own any shares in a company, like MSI, that is regulated by the finance minister.

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Among other things, MSI helps other firms manage their human resources. A big part of their business is administering or assisting companies run employee pension programs.

Last year, Morneau sponsored a bill, C-27, which, if it becomes law, would have created some new business opportunities for firms like MSI to administer new kinds of pension plans.

Cullen formally requested that Dawson, the ethics commissioner, open an investigation to determine if Morneau’s sponsorship of that bill violated federal conflict-of-interest laws.

Dawson, in her written reply to Cullen, would not go so far to say she was opening a formal investigation but she did say the circumstances have piqued her interest.

“Your letter [of complaint] leaves me with concerns in relation to Mr. Morneau’s involvement with Bill C-27,” Dawson told Cullen in the letter, a copy of which was provided to Global News. “I will follow up with Mr. Morneau.”

If the ethics commissioner decides to open a formal investigation to determine if Morneau violated federal conflict-of-interest laws, the opposition will have a field day as that would mean the two most powerful members of the cabinet — the prime minister and the finance minister — would be under active investigations for violations of ethics or conflict-of-interest laws.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been under investigation by Dawson’s office since January for potential violations related to his Christmas vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island.

Dawson’s letter to Cullen was dated Oct. 26, the same day — Thursday — that Dawson met with Morneau in Morneau’s finance department office to discuss his financial affairs. That meeting happened in the morning, and in the afternoon’s question period in the House of Commons, Morneau described his meeting with Dawson as “constructive.”

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Morneau also had a surprise of his own during question period, announcing that he would donate to charity the capital gains he will make when he sells his shares in MSI. While Morneau declined to say how that gain would be, Global News has determined it could be as much as $5.6 million.