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Kenney, Calgary UCP MLA cleared of conflict of interest allegations stemming from India trip

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney and UCP MLA Prasad Panda were cleared of conflict of interest allegations in a report released by Alberta's ethics commissioner on Oct. 23, 2018.
United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney and UCP MLA Prasad Panda were cleared of conflict of interest allegations in a report released by Alberta's ethics commissioner on Oct. 23, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

A month after United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney returned from a trip to India, the province’s ethics commissioner has said Kenney and one of the UCP MLAs who joined him, Prasad Panda, didn’t do anything wrong on the trip. But the way the concerns were brought to light spurred a warning to MLAs on social media use.

The trip drew criticism from some members of the Alberta New Democratic Party, who felt Kenney was misrepresenting himself.

Kenney said he went on the trip as Alberta’s official Opposition leader and used it as a chance to strengthen ties with senior Indian officials that he developed while working as a federal cabinet minister. Premier Rachel Notley and Alberta Trade Minister Deron Bilous accused Kenney of causing confusion overseas about how much power Kenney holds in the province.

READ MORE: Jason Kenney denies sowing confusion on trip to India

Watch below: In September 2018, Blake Lough filed this report as Alberta UCP Leader Jason Kenney was defending a recent trip to India.

Jason Kenney denies sowing confusion on trip to India
Jason Kenney denies sowing confusion on trip to India

Heather Sweet, the chair of the Alberta NDP’s caucus, called for an investigation by the ethics commissioner. She raised concerns about Kenney’s positive comments on Reliance Industries in the media and whether Panda used his connections to arrange a visit to the Reliance refinery so he could serve his own private interests as he owns shares in the company.

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In her report released on Tuesday, Marguerite Trussler wrote that “in no way was Member Kenney attempting to influence the Crown,” by making positive mentions of Reliance Industries on social media.

“He was commenting on his trip and updating his followers,” Trussler said, adding that while Sweet also called for a probe of how Kenney presented himself and the position he holds in office while in India, the ethics commissioner’s office can’t look into that.

“Such representations are not within the jurisdiction of my office but are a political matter,” she said. “However, I am satisfied that Member Kenney did not misrepresent himself.”

Lori Williams, an associate professor of policy studies at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, said it was “a bit odd” for Trussler to say “that it’s not within her purview to look at that and then to suggest that she looked into it and came to some kind of conclusion about it.”

READ MORE: Confusion in India over who Jason Kenney is speaking for: Alberta trade minister

Watch below: Mount Royal University political science professor Duane Bratt joined Global News Morning Calgary on Monday to discuss Jason Kenney’s contentious trip to India.

Confusion over Jason Kenney’s trip to India
Confusion over Jason Kenney’s trip to India

Trussler also dismissed the allegation that Panda’s visit to Reliance Industries and the resulting positive comments from Kenney amounted to a conflict of interest.

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“Member Panda’s interest in Reliance Industries is trivial taking into account the number of issued shares in the company,” she wrote. “Member Panda’s holdings are infinitesimal.

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“Member Kenney’s comments were directed to Albertans and would not in any way make a difference to the share value of the company.”

Trussler also touched on concerns Sweet raised about Kenney and Panda’s use of a private aircraft while in India. She said Kenney and Panda “sought and received prior approval for non-commercial air travel.”

“However, I can understand why Member Sweet possibly could have had concerns about the trip as she was unaware of the circumstances,” Trussler wrote.

In her concluding remarks, the ethics commissioner criticized Sweet’s handling of her concerns and also offered a warning to all MLAs about complaints she does not want to see ahead of the spring election.

“In the future, it would be appreciated if those requesting an investigation did not post the request to social media before I have the courtesy of receiving the request,” Trussler wrote.

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“As well, given that Alberta is having a general election in the next year, I want to make it clear that I do not want members filing complaints against other members for the purpose of scoring political points.”

Williams said she believes Trussler’s warning about “scoring political points” through ethics complaints wasn’t directed at any party in particular. She said that while Sweet was criticized for taking her complaint to social media before it could be investigated, the report acknowledges her request for an investigation was legitimate.

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“[The request was legitimate] because the use of a private aircraft to get to a private location is precisely what got [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau into trouble,” Williams said. “The circumstances there were slightly different because it was for a vacation… the other thing that’s different about Justin Trudeau is that he didn’t ask for permission in advance.

“But the similarities are significant enough that I think she’s (Trussler) acknowledging a legitimate question could be raised and it was important to respond to that.”

Global News reached out to Kenney for comment on Trussler’s findings on Tuesday but was told he was unavailable. A UCP caucus spokesperson told Global News the party is “pleased to see the ethics commissioner throw this frivolous complaint out and issue a stern warning to the NDP against making unfounded complaints to score political points.”

“Sadly the NDP is continuing with these sleazy, desperate tactics as we’ve seen today with the frivolous complaint to Elections Alberta,” Christine Myatt’s statement reads in part. “But when the NDP doesn’t want to speak about their failed record, we’re not completely shocked.”

When Global News reached out to the NDP for comment on the report and its findings, the party’s caucus whip — who ended up representing the NDP on the matter — issued a brief statement.

“I would like to thank the commissioner for her work and for reviewing this matter,” Estefania Cortes-Vargas said.

You can read Trussler’s report in its entirety below.