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.
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.
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.
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].”
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.
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)