MPs call on Ethics Commissioner to testify amid scrutiny over Trudeau’s Jamaica vacation

MPs call on Ethics Commissioner to testify amid scrutiny over Trudeau’s Jamaica vacation

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives to speak at a breakfast with members of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, in Montreal, on Jan. 16.Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press

A House of Commons committee unanimously agreed to call on the Ethics Commissioner to explain the rules governing travel, vacations and gifts at a hearing about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent family trip to Jamaica, which was gifted by a friend.

All parties on the committee voted in favour of bringing in Konrad von Finckenstein to testify, after Liberal MPs were able to pass an amendment that removed specific reference to Mr. Trudeau’s vacation from the motion. However, the committee chair said cutting the reference does not prevent MPs from asking the commissioner about Mr. Trudeau’s vacation.

The controversy over Mr. Trudeau’s family vacation, which took place from Dec. 26 to Jan. 4, was sparked after the Prime Minister’s Office repeatedly changed details around the trip, including who paid for it, but would not release details of where he stayed. The changing facts were a key reason why Conservatives said it warranted a review from the House ethics committee.

Mr. Trudeau on Wednesday defended his decision to accept the gift from a family friend. At a news conference in Saint John, he was asked if his trip would be poorly received by Canadians who are tightening their belts amid an affordability crisis.

“Like many Canadian families, we stayed at a friend’s during the Christmas holidays, all of the rules were followed,” Mr. Trudeau said in French. It was his first public comments on the controversy.

Liberal MP Iqra Khalid said the point of inviting Mr. von Finckenstein, who serves as interim Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, should be to raise awareness about gifts and sponsored travel and how they can affect perceptions of influence.

“The crux of the problem is not one specific instance,” she told reporters after the meeting.

PMO clarifies Trudeau and family stayed ‘at no cost’ during vacation in Jamaica

Ms. Khalid repeatedly dodged reporters’ questions about whether she personally believed the Prime Minister’s free vacation was defensible and followed the rules.

The National Post reported that Mr. Trudeau and his family vacationed in a luxury $9,300-per-night villa at the Prospect Estate and Villas resort, owned by Trudeau family friend Peter Green. It said in total it would have cost approximately $84,000 for the nine-day stay had the family paid for it themselves. The Globe and Mail has not independently verified the report.

Mr. Trudeau’s office first told The Canadian Press in December that he was covering the cost of the stay as well as the travel. However, it then corrected its statement and said the family was staying in Jamaica “at no cost at a location owned by family friends,” but that Mr. Trudeau paid for the commercial equivalent cost of his and his family’s flights.

The explanation for the trip was then changed a third time, with his office saying the Prime Minister and his family stayed with family friends, rather than at a location owned by the friends.

Mr. Trudeau’s office has said that it consulted with the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner on the details of the travel prior to the trip “to ensure that the rules were followed.”

Last week, Conservative MP Michael Barrett asked Mr. von Finckenstein to review whether Mr. Trudeau’s vacation broke the ethics law. Mr. Barrett also questioned which version of the information was disclosed in communications with the Ethics Commissioner. Finally, given that the Ethics Commissioner’s website says that gifts from friends must be “personally paid for,” Mr. Barrett asked if the trip was paid for by Mr. Green or a corporation.

Mr. von Finckenstein’s office told The Globe Wednesday it is not permitted to disclose whether an investigation has been launched. And the Prime Minister’s Office declined to say Wednesday whether Mr. Trudeau had been notified of an investigation.

In a response letter to Mr. Barrett, obtained by The Globe, the interim commissioner said that the Conflict of Interest Act “does not set a limit on the acceptability of gifts from friends, hence I have no authority to set such a limit.”

The Prime Minister has previously been found in breach of the ethics law for a 2016 all-expenses paid vacation to the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas. In that case, then-commissioner Mary Dawson found that Mr. Trudeau’s relationship with the Aga Khan did not qualify as friends.

Mr. Barrett tabled the motion calling for a single meeting on the issue to hear from Mr. von Finckenstein.

“This isn’t a question about a Prime Minister being deserving of a vacation,” Mr. Barrett told the committee. He said that the changing narrative around who paid for the vacation is “incredibly problematic” and raises questions about what Mr. von Finckenstein was told about the trip.

Manitoba NDP MP Daniel Blaikie said the Prime Minister’s vacation habits show a pattern of behaviour that is “likely to continue.”

He added that the vacation’s price tag raises concerns about the perception of a conflict of interest. “There are questions that come up about whether a sense of reciprocal obligation is created by accepting a vacation like that,” Mr. Blaikie said.

A second motion from Mr. Barrett that would have ordered the release of the correspondence between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ethics Commissioner’s office on Mr. Trudeau’s vacations was rejected by the Liberals, Bloc Québécois and NDP.

The Conflict of Interest Act says advice made by the commissioner is confidential, but it does not explicitly say that information provided to the commissioner is also granted confidentiality. However, the House conflict of interest code states that information shared with the commissioner remains confidential unless otherwise stated.

The Liberals opposed the motion citing that confidentiality requirement. The Bloc said the demand was disproportionate to the circumstances. Mr. Blaikie said he first wanted to hear from the commissioner before deciding whether to support the document release and said he was concerned about the precedent that would be set by preemptively demanding the privileged information.

Mr. Barrett told reporters the document release was necessary to “verify what the Prime Minister said, or didn’t say, to the Ethics Commissioner.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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