© 2021 netia.ca
OTTAWA – The federal lobbying watchdog says she has referred three files to the RCMP for criminal investigation since the beginning of the pandemic in a year that has seen a significant uptick in lobbying.
“Since April 2020, I have opened 16 preliminary assessments, and currently have five ongoing investigations. Also since April, I have referred three investigation files to the RCMP. As of today, there are 11 files with the RCMP,” Commissioner of Lobbying Nancy Bélanger revealed to members of the ethics committee Friday.
Bélanger told MPs that the Lobbying Act did not allow her to comment on the progression of these specific cases because any one of her files “may become criminal investigations, and I can not jeopardize that.”
The commissioner was called to detail her office’s work as questions have swirled throughout the summer about the lobbying activities by both WE Charity and the husband of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff. Both have denied any wrongdoing.
During her testimony, Bélanger said that 2020 has been a busy year for lobbyists, particularly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Since February, lobbyists have provided details with respect to more than 21,000 arranged and oral communications. When compared to the same period in 2018 and 2019, it’s clear that more communications are occurring in 2020,” Bélanger said.
SALE Black Friday Subscription Sale Manage> Manage Print Subscription Sections Search Subscribe Sign In Breadcrumb Trail Links NewsCanadian PoliticsCanada Ethics watchdog dismisses 'speculative' conflict of interest allegations against Trudeau's chief of staff
WE lobbied government 43 times in months leading up to cancellation of $543M volunteer grant program deal
To illustrate the increase, the commissioner said lobbyists registered nearly 2,000 communications per month during the past summer, a 25 per cent increase compared to the monthly average of 1,500 in previous years.
Unsurprisingly, “health” was the main lobbying topic through the spring months as the pandemic first rolled through the provinces, before discussions shifted mainly to the topic of “economic development” in May, Bélanger said.
Allegations of lobbying wrongdoing have made headlines during the pandemic, particularly over the summer.
In late August, the commissioner confirmed that she had launched a “preliminary assessment” into media reports by Vice and the National Post that Rob Silver, husband to Trudeau’s chief of staff, had unsuccessfully pressed members of the Finance Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office to make changes to the wage subsidy that would uniquely benefit his employer.
This came less than a month after it was revealed that the government was paying up to $84 million to Silver’s employer, mortgage company MCAP, to administer its COVID-19 emergency commercial rent assistance program for small businesses.
At the time, the Prime Minister’s Office assured that a voluntary screen had been set up between Chief of Staff Katie Telford and her husband, and that she had no dealings in either matter.
The commissioner’s office also acknowledged in September that it had opened a file on WE Charity’s dealings with the government leading up to its controversial $543.5-million deal to administer the Canada Student Service Grant in late June.
The organization pulled out of the deal one week later, but reports over the summer continued to reveal close ties between the WE organization and both Trudeau’s and then-Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s families.
Bélanger told the ethics committee that every file begins as a “preliminary assessment,” which may or may not evolve into a full-fledged investigation. There are then two main outcomes for an investigation: her office tables a report detailing her findings in Parliament, or she refers the file to investigative authorities, “most often the RCMP.”
“Offences under the Lobbying Act include failing to register, failing to file a monthly communication report, providing inaccurate information and lobbying while subject to the five-year provision,” Bélanger explained. Her last point referred to the five-year lobbying ban imposed on public office holders who leave government.
Bélanger also took advantage of the committee meeting to push for certain reforms to the Lobbying Act that she thinks would help her do her job and make lobbying rules clearer to both public office holders and lobbyists.
She would like Parliament to eliminate what is referred to as the “significant part” threshold for in-house lobbyists, meaning that any employee who is tasked with lobbying for their company would have to register with her office.
Currently, the law only requires an employee to register if lobbying constitutes 20 per cent of their work.
She also said she would like all distinctions between in-house lobbyists and consultants to be eliminated from the law.
“I believe that this would increase fairness and clarity and ensuring that both corporations and organizations are subject to the same requirements,” Bélanger said.
• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: ChrisGNardi