What happens if Trudeau, ministers actually broke the law?

Mary Dawson, ethics commissioner, appearing at a committee meeting on the Conflict of Interest Code in May 2012. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Mary Dawson has had no shortage of work to keep her busy this fall.

The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, whose mandate has been extended twice, had spent most of her time in recent years toiling in relative obscurity. But she has recently been thrust into the national spotlight as she looks into potential rule-breaking by various members of the federal cabinet — including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself.

On Monday, Dawson was back in the headlines as the House of Commons resumed after a week-long hiatus.

“Incredibly, we have three cabinet ministers from this government currently under investigation,” said Conservative House leader Candice Bergen.

“With all of these investigations, investigations, investigations, how can these Liberals be trusted?”

Trudeau, in Question Period for the first time in two weeks following a trip to Asia, said he finds it “disappointing to see the Opposition has nothing but cheap shots and slinging mud, when this government is focused on working with the ethics commissioner.”

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It was the prime minister who kicked off the current flurry of probes, however, when he travelled by private helicopter last winter to the Bahamian island owned by family friend the Aga Khan. Dawson has confirmed she is examining whether that flight violated the Conflict of Interest Act.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau, meanwhile, may have run afoul of that same set of rules a few months later when he tabled Bill C-27, which affects pensions. The Opposition has argued that the changes could potentially benefit Morneau’s former firm, Morneau Shepell.

Finally, Dawson has also launched a preliminary inquiry into the behaviour of Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities Kent Hehr. He allegedly used parliamentary resources to help his father campaign for a seat on the Calgary Board of Education.

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But once these investigations (or pre-investigations) have wrapped up, what kinds of consequences could the three members of cabinet face?

The penalties imposed by Dawson herself are relatively minor. She can’t send anyone to jail, for instance, or force anyone out of office. What she can do is slap a public office holder with “an administrative monetary penalty not exceeding $500” for violations of the Act.

While for many Canadians that could represent a pretty steep fine, Morneau and Trudeau are both millionaires and are unlikely to feel the pinch.

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Dawson could also impose an even lighter fine than $500. That’s what she did a few weeks ago after finding that Morneau failed to disclose a French corporation that holds his private villa in that country. The finance minister has chalked that up to an administrative oversight. He was fined $200.

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The political fallout of Dawson’s still-incomplete work could, however, prove much more costly. Once her other investigations into Morneau and Trudeau wrap up, the commissioner is required to post a public notice on her website outlining her findings in each case and to explain any fines.

She is also required to disclose if she decides to move ahead with a full investigation into Hehr’s conduct.

“It’s a big deal politically, because this is precisely the sort of thing that voters can be very attuned to,” said University of Waterloo political science professor Emmett Macfarlane, who recently co-authored a paper on Dawson’s impact and role.

“I think we saw a lot of damage to the Liberal brand in the aftermath of the sponsorship scandal.”

The sponsorship scandal uncovered illegal activities and misuse of public funds intended for government advertising in Quebec. Canadians will likely view findings of ethical impropriety from an independent officer of Parliament like Dawson “to be something at least in the same ballpark,” Macfarlane noted.

That would mean plenty more ammunition for the Opposition in Question Period. If the government can’t find a way to change the channel, the ministers or prime minister could eventually turn to a public apology or — in an extreme case — a resignation.

“When it comes to conflict of interest and ethics, perception is as important as reality,” Macfarlane noted.

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“I’m not sure that we can say that the finance minister or anyone else was trying to benefit personally from being involved in certain files, but surely there’s an interest (for) parliamentarians to be seen as above the fray, as disconnected from any sense of impropriety.”

Dawson’s investigations into Morneau and Trudeau are still ongoing as of Monday, as is her preliminary inquiry involving Hehr. It’s unclear when she may publish her findings.

— With files from David Akin