The federal Conservatives have asked Canada’s ethics watchdog to launch an investigation into allegations of improper lobbying related to the government’s emergency wage subsidy program.
The probe concerns possible breaches of the Conflict of Interest Act involving Michael McNair, a then-informal adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; Katie Telford, Trudeau’s chief of staff; and Telford’s husband, Rob Silver.
Vice reported last month that Silver had contacted staff in the Prime Minister’s Office and then-finance minister Bill Morneau’s office to ask for changes to the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). Those changes would make MCAP, the mortgage and insurance company for which Silver works, eligible for the program. Silver was ultimately not successful in changing the eligibility criteria.
“By indulging Mr. Silver’s appeals, referring him back to Mr. Morneau’s office, and directing Mr. Morneau’s staff to speak to Mr. Silver, Mr. McNair, in our view, gave preferential treatment to Mr. Silver… based on his identity as both a friend and the spouse of his friend and immediate superior Ms. Telford,” Conservative finance and ethics critics Pierre Poilievre and Michael Barrett wrote in a letter to ethics commissioner Mario Dion on Sunday.
McNair was formerly Trudeau’s top policy advisor, but returned to an advising role in an unofficial capacity at the onset of the federal government’s COVID-19 response.
The PMO confirmed to CBC News that McNair was not a paid employee of its office when the conversation was reported to have taken place and said he was working as a volunteer. McNair again became a paid employee of the PMO on June 15 as a special adviser to Trudeau.
Telford followed protocol, PMO reiterates
The Opposition has rejected explanations that McNair was only an informal adviser at the time, stating that he carried “formal weight and authority” given his previous role. On that premise, the Conservatives allege that McNair’s actions could have furthered Silver and Telford’s private interests.
However, the PMO has repeatedly said that Telford took swift action to follow proper ethics procedures before her husband became MCAP’s senior vice-president.
“Before Mr. Silver was hired at MCAP, Ms. Telford proactively reached out to the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner in January to inquire if any action was required on her part,” the PMO said in a previously released statement.
“The Office said no additional measures were required. However, out of an abundance of caution, Ms. Telford implemented a voluntary conflict screen at that time. This screen applies to anything related to MCAP and it has been diligently followed since it was implemented.”
The PMO said that it takes all its ethics obligations “very seriously and follows the rules.”
Lobbying commissioner begins assessment
The Conservatives have already asked Lobbying Commissioner Nancy Bélanger to investigate the matter.
Poilievre and Barrett wrote to Bélanger in August asking her to look into whether Silver or MCAP should have been registered to lobby the federal government.
While Bélanger opened a preliminary assessment, the Conservatives requested a second assessment on Thursday into unregistered communications between Silver, the PMO and Morneau’s office related to amending the wage subsidy program.
A spokesperson for MCAP said the company has “strictly complied with the letter and spirit” of the law regarding the matter.
“MCAP, through counsel, consulted with Canada’s Lobbying Commissioner in January to establish proper screens and protocols around any engagement with government,” the statement said.