Federal Accountability Act, this is your life! – Liveblogging the Conflict of Interest and Lobbying Commissioners at Ethics

Hearken back for a moment to those idealistic days of yore when a steely-eyed leader of the opposition promised that, if elected, his government would “undertake an unprecedented overhaul of the federal government” and “introduc[e] sweeping reforms to make Ottawa accountable’. He also issued a stark warning to party supporters seeking to use politics as a “stepping stone” to a career in lobbying:

“Make no mistake. If there are MPs in the room who want to use public office for their own benefit, if there are Hill staffers who dream of making it rich trying to lobby a future Conservative government, if that’s true of any of you, you had better make different plans.  Or leave.”

So, how’d all that work out? To find out, tune into ITQ’s coverage of the Ethics committee this afternoon, where Conflict of Interest Commissioner Mary Dawson and (interim) Lobbying Commissioner Karen Shepherd will deliver back to back briefings on how well those sweeping reforms made the leap from campaign rhetoric to regulatory reality.

3:13:57 PM
Hurray! After last week’s unceremonious exile to the wilds of West Block, we’re back in Centr Block this afternoon; I’m not sure if that means the scheduling gnomes at committee headquarters have an inkling that this meeting might attract more media attention or if it’s just randomized room selection, but ITQ is certainly not complaining.

3:27:42 PM
While we wait for the tap of the gavel, a quick roll call. On the government side, we have Brad Trost, Russ Hiebert, Maurice Vellacott, Earl Dreeshan and Bob Dechert. Meanwhile, on Team Opposition, it’s Borys W., Michelle Simson, Eve Marie Thi Lac, Louis Plamandon and Bill Siksay.

Wait, there’s Pierre Poilievre! Now it’s a party!

3:32:35 PM
Yes, it’s distinctly possible that I am way too happy to see Poilievre take a seat at the table.

3:34:02 PM
Without further ado, here’s Mary Dawson – she’s the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, just to remind you all – who kicks off her opening statement by congratulating the chair on his re-election before noting that most of the members on the committee are newbies – to Ethics, at least, if not the House of Commons, which is why she’ll be providing a brief overview of her office, and what she does and doesn’t do, starting with her relationship with this committee.

According to Dawson, there is “some confusion” on the part of the public on the role that her office plays in various investigations undertaken by the committee, which is none, unless explicitly invited to testify. Is that really a commonly-held belief? I didn’t think there was that much public awareness that her office even existed, let along a tendency to ascribe responsibilities to her that she doesn’t have.

Anyway, she lists some of her office’s recent efforts, including providing information to public office holders on gifts and tax-free savings accounts, as well as regular meetings with ministerial staff – especially important, given the high turnover.

She’s also established a system of “warning notices”, which, she says, have been “very effective” in encouraging compliance with the Act.

3:40:35 PM
In the interests of full disclosure and accountability, ITQ must note that, of all the members sitting around the table, the only one who hasn’t yet begun to quietly shuffle through papers is Earl Dreeshan. Make of that what you will, although in fairness, most MPs who were here during the last Parliament likely already have a pretty good idea what her office does.

According to Dawson, her priorities involve increasing public awareness, continuing to work with public office holders, better information management and – that seems to be about it. She’s working on her next annual report, and plans to raise “a number of challenges’ that she has faced in implementing the Act. Ooh, that sounds more interesting.

And – questions!

3:44:38 PM
Borys W. starts with an easy one – what is the dollar value for gifts that can be received from foreign governments; the answer is that there is no differentiation between those gifts and any others, and Borys asks if this applies to travel as well – staying in five star hotels and being “wined and dined”. Isn’t that an inconsistency, he wonders – treating gifts with such stringent restrictions, but putting “no limit” on what happens overseas? Not surprisingly, Dawson isn’t going to comment on policy, but she does note that disclosure is a powerful tool.

Borys wonders about recusal – members of the Foreign Affairs committee, say, recusing from matters related to countries on whose tab they may have taken “junkets”, and Dawson tells him that she doesn’t know of any case when that has happened. Now I’m really curious as to where he’s going with this – it’s the kind of question where you know he has a draft press release condemning something or someone in his head – but he moves onto the question of reporting deadlines, which has been the rule rather than the exception in past years. Dawson notes that some of this is “fallout” from the previous office – we’ve had, what, a half dozen various incarnations of an ethics watchdog since Chretien first brought in *his* reforms in the early 90s? – and assures him that she’s working to ensure that people know what has to be reported.

3:52:23 PM
Over to Thi Lac, who is curious about Dawson’s comments on changes between the Conflict of Interest Code and the Act, particularly her reference to some people not being covered by the new legislation, and Dawson reminds her that she just enforces the law; she didn’t write it. Asked what the biggest change in the new law, she points to the extension of her investigative powers beyond ministers’ offices, as well as monetary penalties.

Thi Lac asks what those penalties will be this year, and Dawson tells her that the maximum fine that she can apply is — $500? *Really*? That seems awfully low. Is that per day or something?

3:54:47 PM
On to a specific case; her investigation into allegations of possible misconduct against Dimitri Soudas, the PM’s press secretary. Dawson notes that he was “basically exonerated” in her report, and doesn’t bite when Thi Lac wonders if he would have been similarly absolved had the new law been in effect; as far as Dawson is concerned, he likely would have been, as his actions were “reaonable” for a ministerial staffer.

3:59:04 PM
Bill Siksay has a few questions about the mechanics of the complaint system – does she take public complaints? Is she obliged to followup? – before asking her a question that leads to the first instance of a hint of criticism from the commissioner: Are there any parties who should be covered by the new rules that aren’t? The definition of public officeholders, she admits, may not be clear enough; there is still confusion over the application of the Act, particularly when some people were asked to voluntarily submit to it, but whose positions wouldn’t automatically be covered.

4:03:54 PM
Fancy dinners! Galas! Beer and beef lobby nights! Okay, he only brought up the first, but since he referred to recent media reports on certain gatherings to which MPs were invited, we know what Bill Siksay has in mind and so does the commissioner, I suspect. She doesn’t necessarily think it’s a problem that these events are getting “fancier” – which is a weird way to put it – and she’s not sure if the law needs to be changed; really, it comes down to who is doing the invitation, and why. If it’s a boyfriend, that would be fine – if it’s someone who wants you to do something for them, it may not be.

4:06:22 PM
Oh, Russ, you get the dubious honour of being the first committee member to ask a lobbying question of the not-lobbying commisisoner. Shame, shame. (Don’t worry; she’ll be up next.)

Poilievre takes over, and wants to know the difference in how the law – as opposed to the code – treats blind trusts; the answer is none. Was that the one he was hoping for?

4:09:03 PM
Monitoring gifts, according to Dawson, is difficult, because she depends on the fact that they are properly reported; she can’t very well go out and poke around the ministerial knickknack shelf.

Poilievre then makes a shameless attempt to get her to say that Canada is the least corrupt country in the world, which she dodges, and the floor goes back to the Bloc Quebecois, and Louis Plamandon, who chides her for refusing to investigate a complaint launched by Democracy Watch.

She points out that she needs *some* evidence to “satisfy” her that there may be something there; Democracy Watch was “all over the place” and it wasn’t clear what he was after, other than that he wanted her to investigate everyone appointed by every PM since Brian Mulroney.

4:15:26 PM
Plamandon is also a bit grumpy about the Soudas decision – hey, why hasn’t anyone brought up the Thibault ruling? – and wonders why she didn’t see a problem with the PM’s staffer holding meetings with public servants; he maintains that Soudas could have sent a letter, which would have had “much less risk” of leading to interference. Dawson is somewhat unmoved by his critique – she doesn’t think he did anything wrong, and that’s that.

4:17:05 PM
Bill Siksay wonders about her role in advising soon to be former public officeholders about the post-employment provisions, and she reminds him that her office isn’t actually required to do so at all, although they’ve taken a proactive role. There are no reporting requirements, she points out, and as such, not many tools to follow up. Really, most of this stuff comes to her attention through press reports, she says. See? We *do* *too* have a purpose! Support accountability – buy a newspaper/magazine today!

4:21:09 PM
A few final questions from the chair, who also wants an update on those delinquent disclosure reports; Dawson seems confused — as far as she knows, there are no filings that are still outstanding. As for this year’s reports, she claims there is no backlog at all. Yup – 0% in 60 days, she confirms after a staffer slips her a note. “We’ve cleaned up our act there.” No pun intended, presumably – and only 10% haven’t met the 120 day requirement.

4:24:14 PM
Siksay has a quick followup: He wonders about her experiences with divestment of assets, and whether there should be a conflict of interest test, and she happily obliges. Given the current economic situation, people aren’t all that happy about the prospect of handing over investments and other matters to someone else to manage, nor are they wild about the idea of selling, given the market. She’ll have more on that in her annual report, she promises.

4:28:15 PM
Okay, the turnout from the Office for the Commissioner of Lobbying is considerably more impressive than her conflict of interest counterpart, at least in numbers: She arrived with an entourage of nearly a dozen staffers in tow, two of whom have joined her at the table: Bruce Bergen and Pierre de – damn, I just missed the rest of his name, so I’ll have to creep over to that side of the room to peek at his nameplate.

Karen Shepherd begins her presentation with a brief history of lobby registration laws, which I’m going to spare readers; if you’re interested in the fascinating details of how the LRA has evolved over the last twenty years or so, I’m pretty sure the website would have the same information, perhaps even in the same words.

On the plus side, Russ Hiebert has had a good long time to polish and rework his question on exceptions to the post-employment ban on lobbying, so it should knock our collective socks off.

4:37:14 PM
This certainly is a very thorough explanation of the law. It appears to have mesmerized Bob Dechert.

Oh, she’s moved to the online database, and it’s lucky she’s not taking questions from the floor on her rather questionable claim to have improved the search system; I suspect there are more than a few of us sitting at media tables who would take issue with that contention. Pull up a registration at random and check out the nine-line gobbledyURL that you get — and that’s not even a permanent link, so don’t get any smartypants ideas about including it in a web hit or blog post.

4:42:30 PM
The commissioner of lobbying, you will be relieved to know, now has a clear, strong mandate to educate and raise awareness of the law. Hurray!

And — questions.

4:43:56 PM
Borys asks the obvious first question – when will a permanent commissioner be put in place? (Note: I don’t mean “obvious” in a bad way; it really is the most glaring question, considering how long the interim has turned out to be.) She notes that PCO is running the process of appointing someone on a permanent basis, and assures him that it hasn’t stopped her from, for instance, granting exemption requests. (That’s the example she wants to go with? Not “hasn’t stopped her from investigating complaints”?)

That, as it turns out, is Borys’ next question – how many lobby firms has she investigated? 61 administrative reviews, and 43 currently in progress since 2005, as well as ten investigations.

4:47:58 PM
And – yeah, I think we all saw this one coming too; still from Borys, what about “loopholes”, particularly doing everything *but* meeting with public officeholders while covered by the five year ban.

4:50:08 PM
Pierre Poilievre is suddenly paying rapt attention to the testimony as Shepherd doesn’t oblige Borys by agreeing that the above loophole “doesn’t pass the smell test,” but agrees that it’s something that members may want to look at when the FAA comes up for review.

A brief side trip down Okay, Maybe You Should Have Been Listening To The Opening Statement Lane as Borys demonstrates that he doesn’t understand the difference between public office holders as defined by the Parliament Act and the Lobbying Act; opposition MPs are, in fact, considered such under the latter, so communication with committee menmbers would have to be reported.

4:55:16 PM
A long and rather convoluted question from Thi Lac on her investigative powers, particularly in comparison to the RCMP, which seems to leave the commissioner vaguely uncomfortable; the real problem with being the interim job-holder, it seems to me, would be that you wouldn’t want to do much more than keep the machinery running, since you wouldn’t really have the moral authority to implement major changes or call for legislative reform. She does invite Thi Lac to feel free to make suggestions, but the Blocquette is more interested in determining how many complaints will be followed up by the office.

4:59:41 PM
Bill Siksay wants to know more about those open investigations, and Shepherd says that seven were from between 2005 and 2007 – so filed under the previous law, I guess – but reminds him that there was also a court case in progress, which slowed things down since it wasn’t clear how the courts would rule.

5:01:37 PM
Yay, a question on the definition of public office holder! You know that always brings me back to the heyday of Mulroney/Schreiber filibustering. Anyway, Bruce Bergen jumps in to reassure Siksay that there isn’t really that much confusion, as far as the two different definitions; he suggests that there may be “some individuals” who have experienced a “lack of clarity”, but for the majority, it hasn’t been an issue.

Siksay wonders if the current Code of Conduct for Lobbyists, which was first drafted in 1997, has been revised since its creation, and the answer is no, other than some tweaking by former ethics counsellor Howard Wilson. It seems to Siksay, though, that there have been some ‘significant changes’ since then, but Shepherd doesn’t agree that this necessarily means the code should be changes as well.

5:05:29 PM
Back to the “fancy” events – really, I don’t think these events are actually that much more decadent than in years gone by; it’s just that there wasn’t as much media coverage. The answer isn’t all that much more informative than it was when posed to Dawson: “it depends” seems to be the upshot.

5:06:22 PM
Aw, Russ had to go, so he gave his question – on exceptions to the five year ban – to Bob Dechert. I do have to admit that I find this deep interest in *exempting* certain people from the ban on the part of the Conservative contingent to be intriguing. Shepherd, meanwhile, says that there have been seven applications since the Act came into force in July – yes, we remember it well – but she’s only granted one so far. Does that mean the rest have been rejected, or is she still looking at them? And are the names of those who applied made public? That seems like information that people might want to know, doesn’t it?

5:11:13 PM
Dechert wonders if people are now at risk of “overreporting”, and Shepherd tells him it’s too early to conclude that, and she also isn’t sure how Canada measures up to other countries. He also gives her an opportunity to talk about how thrilled she is to have an expanded mandate for education and public awareness, which is all very glowy and positive. “I’m proud of the fact that it’s working,” she says.

5:13:59 PM
Back to Borys and the 61 investigations – are there any “repeat offenders”, he wonders. Could she provide a list of the firms in question? Shepherd is distinctly uncomfortable with that – the Act, she notes, requires her to conduct investigations in private. Would the information be available under Access to Information?

According to Bergen, there is now a specific provision in the ATI legislation that exempts ongoing investigations from disclosure, although after it is completed, the material would be subject to release. So – how quick is the office at determining that an investigation is closed? That would seem to be a crucial question.

And – hey, Borys just asked the question I was musing over: Are those seven applications still under consideration? Yes. Yes, they are. So I guess the names wouldn’t be subject to ATI, huh? Is there a time limit on how long an investigation is considered active before automatically being made ATIPable?

5:20:49 PM
That’s it for Borys for now – actually, I don’t think we’ll make it to a third round – and it’s back to Earl Dreeshan, who wants to know more about criminal sanctions and penalties, as well as what the code requires.

5:23:11 PM
Hey, it’s Alice Wong, who popped in to seat fill a few minutes ago, but nevertheless has a question: What about education and awareness amongst other cultural and ethnic groups? Shepherd agrees that would be a good idea, and – oh, apparently, that’s it. Szabo thanks the witness, and – as he did with Dawson – exhorts her to think of the committee as a “partner”, and she seems entirely delighted to do so.

5:27:59 PM
The witnesses have quietly departed, but the committee is still dealing with a few loose ends of committastrivia. Poilievre wants to hear from the Public Service Integrity Commissioner, for instance, which Szabo agrees would be a fine idea, if time allows. Meanwhile, Borys reminisces about past committees – PAC and the RCMP pension plan investigation, I’m guessing – when he requested information both through ATI and directly from witnesses, and the information he got through the committee was far less blacked out than what ATI produced.

5:36:13 PM
And – that’s it, we’re adjourned.

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