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Hill Times headline mischaracterizes and ignores key ethics issue in Calandra conflict

Set out below is a letter-to-the-editor by Democracy Watch Board member Duff Conacher which was published in the The Hill Times on August 6, 2012 and and 404 System Error on August 8, 2012

The headline for your article, and Tim Powers and John Capobianco, mischaracterize and ignore the key ethics issue with the fundraising event for Conservative Parliamentary Secretary to Canadian Heritage Paul Calandra (“Tory MP’s ‘piddly’ fundraiser donation conflict overblown, say lobbyists Capobianco, Powers,” The Hill Times, July 30, p. 1).

According to The Globe and Mail and your article, the fundraising event was held at the home of Kirupalini Kirupakaran, sister of WorldBand Media’s president Prabha Selvadurai. According to The Globe and Mail, Kirupakaran has pledged to the CRTC that she will invest up to $2-million in WorldBand Media should it win the competition for the talk radio station.

At the fundraising event, five people the CRTC has listed as WorldBand investors made donations totaling $5,000, and a total of $22,000 was raised.

By playing a role in organizing the event, Selvadural and Kirupakaran essentially delivered $22,000 to a public office holder at or around the same time as WorldBand was lobbying (via the services of Hill and Knowlton) Canadian Heritage, and a government institution (the CRTC), about a decision that falls within that public office holder’s areas of responsibility.

This is the key ethics issue, but your headline, and the Conservative lobbyists you quote, instead downplay the issue by focusing on the fact that each donation made was only for $1,000 maximum.

As a Globe and Mail article about the event noted, but your article neglected to mention, the participation by a Parliamentary secretary in such an event potentially violates the rules set out in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s own “Accountability Guide.” In Appendix B of that guide, it states re: fundraising and dealing with lobbyists that: “Ministers, ministers of state and Parliamentary secretaries must avoid conflict of interest, the appearance of conflict of interest and situations that have the potential to involve conflicts of interests.”

Beyond those rules, as your article mentions, the Federal Court of Appeal unanimously ruled in Democracy Watch’s case in March 2009 that a lobbyist who fundraises for a politician at the same time or around the same time as lobbying the politician clearly violates Rule 8 of the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct. The court ordered Commissioner of Lobbying Karen Shepherd to uphold that standard which she did by issuing an interpretation and enforcement bulletin for Rule 8 in November 2009. Yes, the commissioner’s bulletin has some problems, but it is clear enough for any lobbyist to understand that fundraising and lobbying that are connected are prohibited.

Selvadural and Kirupakaran may try to claim that they were not lobbying, Hill and Knowlton was, and that Kirupakaran as hostess of the event is not with WorldBand. One can only hope that doing fundraising and lobbying in these ways will not be viewed by Shepherd as a way of getting around the clear rules that prohibit both federal politicians, and federal lobbyists, from being involved in fundraising and lobbying efforts that are connected.

As for Calandra, he seems to think that returning the $5,000 donated clears away the ethics violations. He is forgetting that a person directly connected with the company lobbying his department held a fundraising event that raised an additional $17,000 for him.

According to The Globe and Mail, Prime Minister Harper’s office has already issued a statement that ignores the Accountability Guide prohibition on being in an “appearance of a conflict of interest” and stamps the fundraising event as being 100 per cent ethical solely because the CRTC application was not discussed at the event.

As for Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson—she has already issued a ruling (archive website) on a similar event held for Cabinet Minister Lisa Raitt in September 2009.

In that ruling, Dawson deployed her usual twisted logic and extremely weak enforcement standards to claim that because the event raised funds for Minister Raitt’s riding association, Minister Raitt did not personally benefit in any way, and therefore the gift that lobbyists who were lobbying her gave her by helping organizing the event was an acceptable gift.

Thankfully, Dawson’s incompetent ruling was not the last word and Shepherd issued a ruling that found lobbyists, Michael McSweeney and Will Stewart, had violated Rule 8 by helping organize the fundraising event for Raitt.

The ethics commissioner is reviewing whether Calandra may have contravened the Conflict of Interest Act for public office holders or the Conflict of Interest Code for MPs, but has not yet decided to launch a formal investigation. It is not known whether the commissioner of lobbying has received a complaint or is looking into the matter. Democracy Watch intends to file a complaint with the lobbying commissioner.

One can only hope that Dawson will ignore her deeply-flawed ruling in the Raitt case and find Calandra guilty of violating the Conflict of Interest Act, but although it is better to hope than to despair, no one should hold their breath hoping for a legally correct ruling given Dawson’s record which consists of only one ruling in five years where she has found a Cabinet minister in violation of the Conflict of Interest Act (that being her finding in March 2012 that Christian Paradis violated the act—a ruling where she was cornered completely by that situation and would have had to essentially repeal the act in order to rule that Paradis had done nothing wrong).

And one can only hope that Prime Minister Harper will sometime soon start upholding his Accountability Guide rules, given that he has ignored them so far in situations involving many of his Cabinet ministers and senior government officials.

But again, no one should hold their breath waiting for this as Harper has made it clear that he has no problem with practising dishonest, unethical, secretive and wasteful politics as usual, as long as he gets what he wants.

The best that can likely be hoped for is that Shepherd will do her job properly and find the company guilty of violating Rule 8 of the Lobbyists’ Code. Unfortunately, there is no penalty for this violation, although hopefully there will be soon if the recommendations in the recent House Access Committee report are actually implemented by the Conservatives.

For more details, go to Democracy Watch’s Government Ethics Campaign