[Democracy Watch Logo][Op-ed]

Federal Ethics Commissioner Continuing Completely Ineffective Enforcement of Cabinet Ethics Rules

(The following opinion piece, by Duff Conacher, Coordinator of Democracy Watch, was published in the Hill Times on April 25, 2005)

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Dear Editor,

Unfortunately, your interview with the new Ethics Commissioner Bernard Shapiro (Hill Times, April 11) did not address key questions about how Mr. Shapiro has established and operated the office over the past 11 months.

First, asking the Ethics Commissioner whether he "feels more independent" compared to the old Ethics Counsellor is a meaningless question, and a far less important question than asking him: Why did he hire (without a contract bidding competition) law firm Borden Ladner Gervais (BLG) to investigate the allegation that Liberal Cabinet minister Judy Sgro violated Cabinet ethics rules, given that BLG donated $165,000 to the federal Liberals between 2000 and 2003, donated more than $25,000 to Paul Martin's campaign for the Liberal Party leadership, has three lawyers representing Liberals before the Gomery Commission inquiry, and in February 2005 hired Gar Knutson, former Cabinet colleague of Sgro?

The key follow-up questions for Shapiro on this issue are: Does he think that this is best practice for investigations by a government ethics watchdog, hiring outside law firms (lawyers, not trained investigators) who have multiple ties to the political party of the politician being investigated?  Does he think that he is demonstrating independence from the Prime Minister and the ruling party by hiring such a firm to do such an investigation?

Second, Shapiro was asked what background he brings to the position of Ethics Commissioner.  Why was not also asked about the backgrounds of his staff, and why (if his operations are so independent) he would hire former staff of the Ethics Counsellor, given that the Ethics Counsellor's office had no independence from the Prime Minister, and given that the Federal Court in July 2004 ruled that the entire office was biased in both its structure an operations in ways that violate several fundamental principles of justice, and also given that the Federal Court ruling raises concerns about incompetence in the operations of the office?

Third, why was Shapiro not asked about such actions as his December 9, 2004 appearance (with two senior staff members) at a behind-closed-doors meeting of a parliamentary committee (and about the appearance of staff members at closed committee meetings on October 18, 21, and 26, 2004)?  Is this the sort of thing an independent watchdog and his staff do, meet in secret with politicians who are subject to ethics rules he enforces?

Fourth, why was Shapiro not asked about why he has not issued public interpretations of the ethics rules he has applied, for example, to former Liberal Cabinet ministers Lyle Vanclief and John Manley (Shapiro has refused to explain why he believes it is legal for both of them to become lobbyists before then end of the 2-year cooling off period for former ministers)?

Fifth, why was Shapiro not asked about why he has broken his August 2004 public pledge that, as his first priority, he would review and update the list of policy decision-making processes that Prime Minister Paul Martin cannot be involved in because of his personal financial interests?

Sixth, why was Shapiro not asked about why he thinks it is not necessary, as part of effective enforcement of ethics rules, to audit the financial statements of any politician or public official, and why he thinks he would be creating a "police state" if he did such audits?  Revenue Canada does audits of many Canadians' tax statements each year to ensure compliance with tax laws, and no one has suggested that these audits have turned Canada into a police state.

Finally, Shapiro was asked about complaints he has received to date.  By his answer, he seems completely unaware that his office is under a legal duty, based on the Federal Court's July 2004 ruling, to investigate several complaints that Democracy Watch filed with former Ethics Counsellor alleging unethical activities by Cabinet ministers, ministerial staff, and lobbyists.  The Federal Court concluded that the Ethics Counsellor's bias prevented a fair and impartial investigation of the complaints, and noted that the creation of the new Ethics Commissioner and Lobbyists Registrar allow for the complaints to be re-examined.

In its 1996 ruling finding a federal bureaucrat guilty of corruption (the R. v. Hinchey ruling), the entire Supreme Court of Canada concluded that "given the heavy trust and responsibility taken on by the holding of a public office or employ, it is appropriate that government officials are correspondingly held to codes of conduct which, for an ordinary person, would be quite severe" and that "our democratic system would have great difficulty functioning efficiently if its integrity was constantly in question."

Unfortunately, there are many reasons to question the integrity of the operations of the new Ethics Commissioner, and much evidence that he is not holding politicians and public officials to ethical standards any higher than so-called ordinary people face day-to-day (in fact, many ordinary Canadians are held to higher ethical standards in their professions).

Canadians deserve better, especially given that enforcement of the ethics code for Cabinet ministers has been a complete sham since it was enacted almost 20 years ago.

Duff Conacher, Coordinator
Democracy Watch

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