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Group calls on Auditor General to audit performance of federal Ethics Commissioner given negligently weak enforcement record that is a sad joke

Likely 1,600 public office holders have violated ethics rules in Conflict of Interest Act or MP Code from 2007 to 2014 but only five have been found guilty of violating Act or Code

From 2007 to 2014, Ethics Commissioner Dawson made 149 secret rulings, issued only 25 public rulings, and let 75 (94%) of people who clearly violated the rules off the hook

Commissioner doesn’t audit financial statements of activities of any politician or official, and hasn’t uncovered any violations, so likely only 5% of violators are caught – law and enforcement must be strengthened

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

OTTAWA – Today, Democracy Watch called on the Auditor General to audit federal Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson’s performance record similar to the review the auditor did in 2010 of the very negligently weak enforcement record of the former federal Integrity Commissioner. Commissioner Dawson is the enforcer of the Conflict of Interest Act and the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons (“MP Code”) and she has an enforcement record for both that is as bad as the former Integrity Commissioner’s record.

Ethics Commissioner Dawson will present a paper on her enforcement record at the Canadian Political Science Association (CPSA) conference at 8:45 am tomorrow, Thursday, June 4, 2015. Democracy Watch’s Co-founder Duff Conacher will be there to publicly challenge her weak record.

On May 27, 2015, as she has in the past, Commissioner Dawson testified before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access, Ethics and Privacy and stated that “Effectively, the way my office operates…[is] if anything comes in [as a complaint] we look into it unless it’s nutty but most of them are not… and “I see my role as if I become aware in any way of the Act appearing not to be followed, or the Code, then I should follow up and see what’s going on.”

Despite testifying that most of the complaints she receives have some validity, Commissioner Dawson has failed to issue a public ruling for 149 (85%) of the 174 complaints she has received since 2007. In other words, she has issued public rulings for only 25 (15%) of the 174 complaints she has received.

Of the 25 cases the Ethics Commissioner has ruled on, she has only found five people (20%) guilty. The Ethics Commissioner did not discover any of the situations she investigated – all of them were uncovered by the media, other watchdog agencies or the public. Commissioner Dawson did not discover any violations because she does not do any audits of the financial statements submitted to her by politicians and officials covered by the ethics rules, nor does she audit any of their activities while they are in office or after they leave office (even though some ethics rules cover them for the rest of their lives).

The Ethics Commissioner should have found 80 people guilty since 2007 through her 25 public rulings (and likely many more given her 149 secret rulings). In other words, the Ethics Commissioner has found only five of 80 people guilty, thereby letting 94% of the people who have violated the Act or MP Code since 2007 off the hook. The following 75 people were let off the hook by the Ethics Commissioner with very questionable rulings that ignored clear rules, facts and common sense (showing just how much federal ethics rules and enforcement are an ongoing bad joke):

  • Prime Minister Harper (1st time re: Brian Mulroney; 2nd time re: Peter Penashue);
  • Nigel Wright (1st time re: communications with companies in which he had a financial interest; 2nd time re: again communicating with organization in which he had a financial interest; 3rd time re: intervening in audit of Senator Mike Duffy’s expenses);
  • Several other PMO staff re: intervening in audit of Senator Duffy’s expenses;
  • Chuck Strahl;
  • David Anderson;
  • Kerry-Lynne Findlay;
  • Colin Carrie;
  • Eve Adams;
  • Jim Flaherty (1st time (PDF of ruling) re: allowing his office handing out contract to a former campaigner for him; 2nd time re: writing letter to CRTC on behalf of supporter (was ordered not to do it again, but was not found in violation of Act for doing it));
  • Tony Clement;
  • Lisa Raitt;
  • Rick Dykstra;
  • 25 Cabinet ministers, ministers of state and parliamentarians who along with 35 Conservative MPs handed out government cheques with Conservative Party logos on them (Click here to see PDF of Commissioner’s Dawson’s very flawed 2009 report).

Given Ethics Commissioner Dawson’s weak enforcement record, and her failure to conduct any audits of the more than 7,000 current or former public office holders covered by federal ethics rules since she began her position in July 2007 (audits that experts in law enforcement agree are necessary for effective law enforcement) it is reasonable to assume that only 5% of people who have violated the Act or MP Code have been caught. As a result, it is reasonable to assume that 1,600 people have violated the Act or Code since 2007 and that Commissioner Dawson has found out about only 80 (5%) of them (and even that is a conservatively low estimate given that Commissioner Dawson has made 149 secret rulings).

“Federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson has let dozens of politicians who clearly violated ethics rules off the hook with very questionable rulings since 2007, and she may be covering up almost 150 dangerously unethical situations that have happened since 2007, and given that she doesn’t audit the financial statements or activities of any politician or official there are likely 1,600 people who have violated federal ethics rules that she has failed to catch,” said Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch and Chairperson of the 31-member group, nation-wide Government Ethics Coalition. “Commissioner Dawson has a negligently weak enforcement record as bad as the former Integrity Commissioner’s record, and so Democracy Watch is calling on the Auditor General to do a similar review as the auditor did in 2010 of the former Integrity Commissioner’s performance.”

“There will never be effective ethics enforcement in federal politics as long as Mary Dawson is the Ethics Commissioner and the rules are loophole-filled and allow for her ongoing negligently weak enforcement,” said Conacher. “To end this negligent enforcement of federal ethics rules, the Ethics Commissioner must be replaced with an effective watchdog who is required to issue public rulings on every complaint, and to conduct regular, random audits and to penalize anyone who violates ethics rules with high fines, and anyone must be allowed to challenge the Ethics Commissioner’s often questionable rulings in court.”

The Conflict of Interest Act and the MP and senator ethics codes are so full of loopholes, they should be called the “Almost Impossible to be in a Conflict of Interest Rules” — and even worse the rules don’t even apply to the staff and advisers of MPs and senators. Currently, because of these huge loopholes, the Act and codes do not apply to 99% of the decisions and actions of the people covered by the Act and codes.

The ethics codes that federal politicians have imposed on public servants contain much stronger rules than the rules the politicians have written for themselves, and the penalties are stronger, including the possibility of being fired.

The Conservative majority on the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics ignored these loopholes and enforcement problems in its February 2014 report on the Conflict of Interest Act. The NDP issued a dissenting report calling for some specific key changes to the Act, and the Liberals also issued a dissenting report that criticized the Conservatives for ignoring the problems (but did not recommend any changes).

Meanwhile, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs failed to complete the five-year review of the MP Code in 2014 after weakening it with various changes in 2006 and with various changes in 2009 (after unethical behind-closed-door meetings with Commissioner Dawson).

“Unethical decision-making in federal politics is legal, even by Cabinet ministers, and some political staff and appointees are still not covered by any ethics rules, so loopholes must be closed and enforcement strengthened to finally stop dangerously undemocratic and corrupting actions and relations with lobbyists,” said Conacher.

The details of Commissioner Dawson’s record, according to the information in her Annual Reports, are as follows:

  • July 2007 – Mar. 31, 2012
    According Ethics Commissioner Dawson’s annual reports, from 2007 to April 2012 she rejected at least 83 complaints filed with her without issuing a public ruling (it could be more as she did not disclose the total number of complaints she received in 2008-2009 nor in 2010-2011). During that time period, Commissioner Dawson received complaints about, or became aware of, a total of at least 100 questionable situations, but she only issued 17 public rulings, and only found 3 people guilty of violating ethics rules (a few more were found guilty of violating administrative rules, like missing filing deadlines etc.).
  • 2011-2012 — 69 public office holders missed financial statement filing deadline but only one was fined;
  • April 1, 2012 – March 31, 2013
    48 cases worked on; 57 missed filing deadline for financial statements and 17 fined; 32 investigations of violations of ethics rules initiated but only 6 fully examined as violations of Act; closed a total of 33 case files, 24 without a full examination; issued 4 rulings and found 2 office holders guilty of violating ethics rules in Act (Sullivan and Hill);
  • April 1, 2013 – March 31, 2014
    41 cases worked on; 51 missed filing deadline for financial statements but she only fined 16; 41 investigations initiated but only 3 fully examined as violations of Act; closed a total of 35 case files, 32 without a full examination; issued 3 rulings and found no office holders guilty of violating Act (Sullivan and Hill), and;
  • April 1, 2014 – March 31, 2015 – Annual Report 2014-2015 not yet available

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Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch
Tel: (613) 241-5179
Cell: (416) 546-3443
[email protected]

Democracy Watch’s Government Ethics Campaign