David MacNaughton is pictured at a news conference at the Canadian Embassy in Washington on June 13, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Two cabinet ministers among nine barred from meeting with former ambassador

A week to the day before MPs return to Parliament for a speech from the throne that could trigger an election this fall, Canada’s ethics commissioner has delivered a ruling that may — or may not — heap added pressure on the governing Liberals already trying to cope with the so-called WE Charity scandal.

In August, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued Parliament, in part pundits and critics said, to buy some time to ride out the controversy. 

He could be facing a new one…maybe.

In a ruling made public on Wednesday, Canada’s Ethics Commissioner ordered two federal cabinet ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, and seven senior government officials to sever official dealings with the country’s former ambassador to Washington, David MacNaugton, for a year.

Ambassador David MacNaughton opens the door for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland after she spoke to media about trade talks at the Office of the United States Trade Representative in Washington, Aug. 29, 2018. On Wednesday, Freeland was one of nine people that Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion barred from meeting with MacNaughton for a year. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacquelyn Martin)

Included in the ruling are Industry Minister Navdeep Bains and Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance.

The commissioner, Mario Dion, found that MacNaughton, who resigned the post in August of last year, broke section 33 the Conflict of Interest Act, which prohibits former public office holders from “acting in such a manner as to take improper advantage of their previous” position.

The ruling stems from the job MacNaughton took after leaving Washington when he joined Palantir Technologies, a Silicon Valley company that builds data-mining software for clients such as banks, manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies and government agencies, including law-enforcement and intelligence services.

Dion listed 17 instances between March 2 and April 9 in which MacNaughton, who is currently serving as president of the company’s Toronto-based Canadian subsidiary, communicated with or met federal officials, including Freeland, Bains and Vance.

Prohibited from official dealings with MacNaughton for one year
Chrystia Freeland, current deputy prime minister (and minister of intergovernmental affairs when MacNaughton’s communications with government officials took place); Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of defence staff; Navdeep Bains, minister of innovation, science and industry; Rick Theis, director of policy and cabinet affairs Prime Minister’s Office; Ryan Dunn, chief of staff to Navdeep Bains; Leslie Church, chief of staff to the minister of public services and procurement; Jody Thomas, deputy minister, Department of National Defence; Bill Matthews, deputy minister, public services and procurement; Simon Kennedy, deputy minister, innovation, science and economic development.

The purpose, Dion said, was to offer unpaid assistance on behalf of Palantir to the government for its pandemic response and included explaining what Palantir was doing to track COVID-19 in other jurisdictions.

Dion said the communications with officials did not result in contracts for Palantir and wrote in his findings that MacNaughton “has acknowledged, with the benefit of hindsight, that these communications and meetings, to the extent they could have furthered the interests of Palantir, were contrary to [the act].” 

Alex Karp, co-founder and CEO of Palantir Technologies, is pictured in 2017. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The CBC’s Catharine Tunney reports that Freeland and MacNaughton, who worked closely on negotiating the USMCA, the updated trade deal with the U.S. and Mexico back in 2017–2018, had three general discussions about the novel coronavirus in March during which McNaughton talked about what Palantir was doing to help other governments on a pro bono basis.

That same month, Tunney reports, MacNaughton also talked to Vance twice and offered Palantir’s help if needed. 

“From my part there was no conversation on the matter of pro bono work,” Vance told Tunney.

Vance recently announced his retirement but remains on the job until is replacement is named. 

“It was offered, noted and not acted upon,” Vance said.

Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau take part in a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 30. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

How Dion’s findings play with the public remains to be seen, but the NDP ethics critic, Charlie Angus, who requested an investigation into MacNaughton in May, called Dion’s decision “a good day for democracy in Canada.”

“Here we see a senior Trudeau Liberal nailed for breaking conflict of interest laws, while working for a dark and controversial surveillance giant,” Angus said in a statement.

“Trudeau’s former U.S. ambassador should have known better, but it seems that Mr. MacNaughton didn’t think the rules applied to him as he used his former status to pitch his new employers. Hasn’t anyone in Trudeau’s team read the law?”

With files from CBC News (Catharine Tunney), The Canadian Press (Jordan Press)

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