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Canadian News Apr 10, 2019 2:25 PM EST

Ethics investigator on SNC scandal waited weeks before declaring conflict-of-interest with cabinet minister

The MP who helped initiate the Ethics Commissioner’s probe into the SNC-Lavalin said he regrets it after it was learned that a lawyer involved in the investigation recused herself over a family relationship with a Liberal cabinet minister.

Ethics investigator on SNC scandal waited weeks before declaring conflict-of-interest with cabinet minister
Jason Unrau Montreal, QC

This article was published more than 1 year ago, information might not be up to date.

Senior counsel for the Ethics Commissioner’s probe into the SNC-Lavalin scandal has recused herself over a conflict of interest with a cabinet minister.

According to the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, Northern Affairs minister Dominic LeBlanc’s sister-in-law Martine Richard was senior counsel in their SNC-Lavalin inquiry for more than two weeks.

“In early March, out of an abundance of caution, Ms. Richard recused herself from the examination of Prime Minister Trudeau regarding the allegation that he or his office pressured the Attorney General of Canada in relation to the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin,” said the office in a statement to The Post Millennial.

Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion announced his investigation on February 11 following allegations in a Globe and Mail story alleging key figures in the Prime Minister’s Office, including Trudeau, interfered in then attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould’s role as top prosecutor.

Commons Ethics committee vice-chair Charlie Angus co-signed a letter with fellow New Democrat MP Nathen Cullen, asking Dion to open an investigation, which he did under section 9 of the Conflict of Interest Act. But Dion’s investigation has been stalled since March 11, after he took an indeterminate leave for health reasons following Richard’s self-recusal.

Angus said that he now regrets having requested the investigation in the first place.

“Who’s handling this investigation? The commissioner’s off [on medical leave]. [Richard’s] had to recuse herself. I’m actually at the point where I’m sorry I wrote to him in the first place. Literally,” said New Democrat MP Charlie Angus. “I doubt we’re going to get anything from it, so why are we continuing with this?”

The story of Richard’s purported relationship with LeBlanc broke two days ago in the wake of Democracy Watch gadfly Duff Conacher’s claims that it constituted a conflict-of-interest. The claim was first reported by The Hill Times on Tuesday but yesterday a Blacklock’s Reporter story confirmed that the woman was indeed two-degrees of separation from a Trudeau cabinet minister by marriage; something that was known by the Ethics commissioner’s office since 2013.

“A potential conflict of interest was identified in 2013 between Martine Richard, Senior General Counsel in our Office, and the Honourable Dominic LeBlanc,” the statement indicates. Richard is the sister of Joléne Richard, a New Brunswick justice, who married LeBlanc in 2003.

As the SNC scandal continues to plague the Trudeau government, by the beginning of March, Wilson-Raybould had already resigned from cabinet, as well as Trudeau’s top advisor Gerald Butts. By the time Dion took his leave, Wilson-Raybould’s cabinet colleague and confidant Jane Philpott had also resigned as Treasury Board president over the scandal.

“We’re well, well, well into a serious and unprecedented political scandal when (Richard) decides to recuse herself,” said Angus of the timeline. “I mean what’s going on in the Ethics office? … one of their top litigators to carry out the investigation is defined under the act as a family member to a cabinet minister. You couldn’t make this stuff up.”

LeBlanc has been the Liberal member for Beauséjour in New Brunswick since 2000, held junior cabinet positions under PMs Chrétien and Martin and bowed out of the party’s 2008 leadership race for academic and public intellectual Michael Ignatieff’s coronation.

The Harvard professor would go on to lead the Liberals to their worst election defeat in the party’s history, reducing the Grits to third-party status and giving the newly-amalgamated Conservative Party under Stephen Harper, its first majority government..

In 2013, when the Office of the Ethics Commission was vetting LeBlanc’s sister-in-law for any conflicts of interest, LeBlack was watching New Democrats assume the role of Official Opposition in holding Harper to account, the first time he and the Grits had found themselves in this position.

But LeBlanc’s fortunes changed in the 2015 election when Liberals rebounded to majority status and in the spring of 2016, Trudeau would name LeBlanc as the fisheries minister. Two years later, Dion’s predecessor Mary Dawson would find LeBlanc violated ethics rules for granting a valuable clam fishing licence to a cousin of Joléne’s.

According to the Ethics office in that particular investigation, “Appropriate measures were put in place to shield Ms. Richard from any involvement … the examination of the conduct of Minister LeBlanc in 2018 was dealt with by other legal counsel and the Commissioner.”

Conservative MP Peter Kent, who sits on the Ethics committee with Angus, said giving Martine Richard the job at the Ethics Commission was ill-advised.

“The responsibility is to deal with very sensitive issues regarding members of public office holders,” said Kent. “I have sympathy for this individual but I think it would be far better if she should seek a position elsewhere, at greater arm’s length from any investigation of members of parliament, of any political stripe, simply to protect the impartiality of the commissioner’s office.”

While the status of Dion’s investigation into the PMO and Trudeau’s conduct regarding SNC-Lavalin is in limbo, previous investigations by the office into Trudeau’s ethical lapses have garnered little more than slaps on the wrist for the PM.

Trudeau’s 2015 vacation at the Aga Khan’s island resulted in admonishment-by-report issued by then-commissioner Dawson, and accepting a gift of sunglasses from the premier of Prince Edward Island garnered a $100 fine for failing to declare the gift of two pairs of locally made designer shades.

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