OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper says Industry Minister Christian Paradis "didn’t act with any ill intention" when he broke conflict-of-interest rules in 2009.
The ethics watchdog for the House of Commons said Thursday that Paradis broke the rules when he gave a former Tory colleague preferential treatment.
Paradis _ then Public Works minister _ directed his officials to set up special meetings with defeated Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer to discuss a private project.
In her report, conflict of interest commissioner Mary Dawson said this sort of special treatment is unfair to other businesses.
During his visit to Thailand on Friday, Harper said he had reviewed the findings of Dawson’s report and found no wrongdoing.
"I thing two things are clear. First off all, the minister didn’t act with any ill intention of any kind, nor has any substantial harm of any kind occur," said Harper.
"I think the appropriate thing in this case is for the minister simply to learn and to conduct himself with greater precaution in the future."
Paradis, then Public Works minister, helped set up a high-level meeting with senior bureaucrats for Jaffer and a business partner, conflict of interest commissioner Dawson said in a report Thursday.
This sort of special treatment is unfair to other businesses, she said.
Jaffer had a green technology consulting firm and was gauging interest in a project to install solar panels on federal buildings. He called and emailed political staff in the minister's office about the project and later called Paradis directly on his cellphone.
Documents released in 2010, obtained by The Canadian Press, showed that the minister's political staff pressed bureaucrats to meet Jaffer and business partner Patrick Glemaud.
"The sector has had this for weeks. What's the hold-up?" former Paradis adviser Sebastien Togneri wrote to civil servants about a meeting. Dawson suggested there were other, similar, reminders.
A month later, five bureaucrats and a political staffer met Glemaud. The solar-panel project he and Jaffer were pushing ultimately was denied funding.
Dawson found Jaffer was treated more favourably than other businesses that were better established than his company, Green Power Generation.
Jaffer's project wasn't assessed by the minister's office before bureaucrats were asked to set up a meeting.
Dawson said Paradis broke a section of the Conflict of Interest Act that prohibits preferential treatment, as well as a section involving the improper furthering of the interests of another person.
She wrote it was easy to understand Paradis's inclination to help someone he knew, but that didn't make it right.
"I believe that facilitating access to decision-makers or those who may influence them is captured by the act's prohibition against providing preferential treatment," Dawson wrote.
"Ministers are in a position of power and have a special responsibility to ensure that the power is exercised fairly and in a way that is open to all Canadians."
Paradis issued a statement Thursday saying he accepts the findings of the report, while emphasizing there was never any prospect of financial benefit or advantage for himself.
"The commissioner said today that these reports are educational tools to help us understand how conflict of interest rules work," Paradis said.
"In the future, I will take further precautions when approached by Canadians seeking more information about the services and programs provided by their government."
In the report, Dawson poked holes in some of the minister's assertions. Paradis had said he acted the way he did because Jaffer had been an MP, and that he believed his project was serious and credible.
But Dawson said she didn't find the explanation "convincing."
"While Mr. Paradis said he found Mr. Jaffer's project innovative, he also said several times during his interviews that he did not fully understand the details of it."
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said the matter will come up during question period next week, in a Commons already transfixed by allegations of voter suppression by the Conservatives.
"I think that it's another test for the prime minister," said Angus. "He's been failing on the ethical file again and again.
"He said he was going to clean up Ottawa, he's got a minister who obviously broke the rules, who knew what the rules were, who's helping another insider. Is Stephen Harper going to take this seriously, or say, well, it's a good ol' boy and this is the way we do business?"
Documents showed that senior bureaucrats had misgivings about being directed to meet a businessman.
The deputy minister's chief of staff bluntly told Paradis's office that any meeting "won't be with the DM (deputy minister)," and passed the request to other officials.
Later, a strategic adviser to the deputy minister suggested somebody should draft a policy or directive for dealing with such third-party inquiries. Dawson revealed that Paradis had asked that other projects raised by constituents be studied.
"The DM is concerned about this type of request and by the fact it can contravene and disrupt our daily operational or program requirements, tasks and work," the adviser wrote.
Togneri, one of the Paradis staffers pushing to set up the meeting, resigned in 2010, when it came to light he had meddled in a number of access-to-information requests. The information commissioner found he had violated the Access to Information Act, but the RCMP did not charge Togneri.
Paradis is just the latest person connected to Jaffer's unsuccessful business venture to run afoul of ethics rules.
Jaffer and Glemaud were found earlier this year to have contravened lobbying rules for not having registered as lobbyists. Dawson ruled that Jaffer's wife, former junior cabinet minister Helena Guergis, contravened ethics rules when she wrote to a local politician on behalf of a constituent with whom Jaffer had also had business dealings.