Ethics commissioner testifies about Trudeau vacation

Ethics commissioner testifies about Trudeau vacation

Canada’s interim ethics commissioner Konrad von Finckenstein has confirmed that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau consulted his office in advance of his latest Jamaican vacation, and he was within the rules to accept the gifted accommodations from a friend.

“He consulted us, and we advised him,” von Finckenstein told MPs while testifying before the House of Commons ethics committee about the rules around gifts and trips on Tuesday.

He indicated that as far as the ethics office is concerned, the matter is closed.

“If it had not been an acceptable gift, it would have had to be reported on our website… nothing has been reported.”

As the Conflict of Interest Act states, office holders have 30 days to disclose gifts valued at $200 or more on a public registry, unless the gift does not require declaration, such as those received from a family member or friend.

During the hearing, questions were raised around the lack of upper limit or cap on acceptable gifts from friends, to which von Finckenstein indicated that, should an MP be gifted something as exceptionally “lavish” as a Ferrari, it would prompt a deeper dive.

“What we have here is clearly a generous gift, but it’s between people who are friends, and I don’t see why, just because they’re well off, they can’t exchange gifts and that’s what they’re doing here.” 

While the acting ethics official was invited by MPs to speak broadly about the rules for “gifts, vacations, and travel,” under the Conflict of Interest Act, MPs on the committee agreed at a special hearing on Jan. 17 that all questions related to Trudeau’s holiday trip would be allowed.

The Conservatives pushed for this hearing because they wanted to hear directly from von Finckenstein about whether or not he knew Trudeau would be staying for free at a villa, owned by a longtime family friend.

“Thirty days have passed since the prime minister disclosed that he went to Jamaica… you can draw your own conclusion as to what the advice was that I gave,” said von Finckenstein.

Trudeau’s office has not confirmed the location of the prime minister’s holiday, but the National Post has reported the family stayed at a privately owned villa that rents for several thousand dollars per night, and is part of a resort that belongs to businessman Peter Green’s family, which has decades-old ties to the Trudeau family.

In estimating that the trip would be valued at more than $80,000, Conservative MP and ethics critic Michael Barrett suggested the offering of accommodations was a substantial and potentially influential gift, and challenged Trudeau’s defence that it was equivalent to staying at a friend’s place over the holidays.

“This is the second year that this gift has been given, to our understanding. The value, bordering on $200,000, which we’re now in the in the ballpark where you could buy a Ferrari,” Barrett asked. “Do two $84,000 gifts, even from a friend, rise to the level of exception?” 

In response, von Finckenstein pointed again to the exemption within the current rules when it comes to accepting gifts or advantages from family and friends.

“The prime minister has received gifts… more than once from this friend. He has spoken publicly of this friendship and has sought advice from my office, both during my tenure and during the tenure of my predecessor,” he said.

In previous statements to media, the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner indicated the office “does not approve or ‘clear’ regulatees’ vacations,” but declined to provide specific details, citing confidentiality requirements.

This discrepancy in the wording, given the Liberals suggested the vacation was given the green light, was explored in more detail during Tuesday’s hearing.

While not offering more specifics when asked the entirety of what Trudeau disclosed, von Finckenstein said that while his office doesn’t sign off on specific gifts or desired travel destinations, it does offer advice around what is acceptable.

He said office holders “always” take his office’s advice, because if they don’t, there would be an investigation.

“We work to verify the true depths of a friendship asserted. If someone is a friend, they can offer gift to a public officer in a personal context, and the gift does not need to be disclosed,” he said.

“This is a true friend who has no relations with the Government of Canada,” he said.

Do rules need revamp? 

Liberal MPs agreed to call for the ethics commissioner to appear, but indicated their intent was to see him speak publicly about MPs’ ethics rules to provide Canadians clarity around what is permitted and why. 

During the hearing they focused their questions largely around past “lavish” trips and expenses claimed by Conservatives over the years, to which the ethics commissioner said what the Liberals were referring to, was sponsored travel for MPs that comes with its own code of conduct.

“You have adopted rules by which you specifically said sponsor travel is it okay, as long as it is disclosed,” he said. 

The New Democrats backed the push to focus the hearing more broadly than on Trudeau’s latest 10-day family trip, noting that given recent examples of travel by both Liberals and Conservatives, MPs ought to explore whether the rules need to be adjusted regarding the wealthy being able to influence their political friends.

“What I would propose… for those that are that are interested in actually changing the page on these ongoing sagas of what I think are scandals that take away from the legitimacy of our democracy, is the elimination of sponsored travel and replacing it with two international travel credits,” said NDP MP Matthew Green during the two-hour meeting.

This proposal sparked some debate during Tuesday’s meeting, culminating with committee members agreeing to consider a letter to the parliamentary bodies who oversee MP travel rules to recommend they make policy amendments that would effectively ban sponsored travel.

What led to ethics hearing? 

Trudeau and his immediate family left for the Caribbean island on Boxing Day. The PMO initially said Trudeau’s family would pay for their stay. But, as The Canadian Press reported, the office later clarified the accommodations were “at no cost at a location owned by family friends.”

His office also stated the ethics commissioner was consulted “on these details prior to the travel to ensure that the rules were followed.”

The PMO said at the time that Trudeau “continues to reimburse the equivalent of a commercial airline ticket for his personal travel and that of his family.” The prime minister must travel on government aircraft per longstanding government policy.

Responding previously to Barrett’s accusations of being less than transparent, PMO press secretary Mohammad Hussain said in an emailed statement that “any allegation that we would mislead the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner is categorically false.”

Von Finckenstein told MPs Tuesday that he has no comment on, or control over how the PMO communicated with Canadians about the holiday. 

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