Today, Democracy Watch has filed a complaint letter with federal Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson requesting that she launch an inquiry into former Conservative Cabinet minister Chuck Strahl’s activities as the Chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) since June 2012, and his work with Enbridge and other clients since he left Cabinet in May 2011.
As the complaint letter details, the federal Conflict of Interest Act (the “Act”) requires public office holders to arrange their private affairs to “prevent” conflicts of interest. Democracy Watch’s opinion is that Mr. Strahl’s work with Enbridge while being Chair of SIRC while CSIS is investigating opponents of Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline causes conflicts of interest, it does not prevent them.
The Act also prohibits former Cabinet ministers, for two years after they leave the government, from working for or making representations to any entity across Canada (federal, provincial, territorial or municipal) with which they had significant official dealings during their last year in office.
Enbridge directly lobbied Mr. Strahl on April 29, 2010, and was registered to lobby the two departments he headed during his last year in office. Democracy Watch’s opinion is that, as a result, Mr. Strahl was prohibited from working with Enbridge until May 18, 2013 (two years after he left office). Mr. Strahl has confirmed that he has done work for Enbridge since 2011.
The Act also prohibits former Cabinet ministers, staff and appointees from ever giving advice using secret information they learned on the job, and from ever acting for any entity that is involved with any federal government proceeding or negotiation about which they advised the government.
Democracy Watch’s opinion is that given Enbridge was lobbying Mr. Strahl’s departments, and continues to lobby the government, including on the pipeline issue, and given that Mr. Strahl was a Cabinet minister from B.C., Mr. Strahl likely advised the federal government in some way on the pipeline negotiations, and Mr. Strahl must be using secret information he learned as a Cabinet minister, or is learning as Chair of SIRC, when giving advice to Enbridge.
In other words, Democracy Watch’s opinion is that Mr. Strahl is prohibited by the Act from acting as an advisor to Enbridge or any other entity that has an interest in federal government decision-making processes that Mr. Strahl advised the government about or about which Mr. Strahl likely knows confidential information.
“Enbridge’s past lobbying of Chuck Strahl and ongoing lobbying of the federal government, and his past and ongoing work for Enbridge while he is the chair of SIRC, adds up to a situation that Democracy Watch believes violates several rules in the federal conflict of interest law,” said Duff Conacher, Board member of Democracy Watch.
The big question is whether the Ethics Commissioner will take any action given that her spokesperson has already publicly stated that the Commissioner has “no grounds to believe” that Mr. Strahl’s activities and roles violate the Act, and given the Ethics Commissioner’s very weak enforcement attitude, approach and record since she was appointed in July 2007.
“There is enough clear evidence for Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson to launch an inquiry into Mr. Strahl’s activities, so will she act like a watchdog and investigate or will she continue her weak lapdog enforcement record by failing, as she has more than 80 times in the past six years, to investigate and rule publicly about possible violations of the federal ethics law?” asked Conacher.
Democracy Watch also called on the House Ethics Committee to ensure it strongly recommends more than 30 key changes in its soon-to-be-released report reviewing the federal Conflict of Interest Act, including the most important change of closing loopholes and adding a new rule to make it clear that federal Cabinet ministers, staff and appointees are prohibited from taking part in any discussion or decision-making process when they have an appearance of a conflict of interest (this is the standard that all federal government employees are required to comply with under their ethics code and conflict of interest policy).
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