OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper's chief of staff, Nigel Wright, is now the subject of a formal conflict of interest examination by the federal ethics watchdog.
Mary Dawson's office confirmed Tuesday that the ethics commissioner has launched an examination of Wright's dealings with Barrick Gold Corp. (TSX:ABX), under section 45 of the Conflict of Interest Act.
That section empowers the commissioner to act on her own initiative — without waiting for an MP or senator to request an investigation — if she has reason to believe someone has contravened the act.
"The fact that she's decided, on her own, to look into this and launch an investigation speaks to the seriousness of the allegation," said New Democrat ethics critic Charlie Angus, who had been contemplating asking Dawson to investigate the matter.
At issue is whether Wright improperly used his influential position to further the private interests of friends at Barrick. The company lobbied Wright on three separate occasions in May despite his personal connections to the company's founding family.
Dawson was unaware of the potential conflict until her office was asked about the matter last month by The Canadian Press. Dawson "followed up" with Wright and then pondered the matter for several weeks before launching the formal examination.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has said Barrick, which has mining operations in Argentina, called Wright to discuss Harper's performance at the Summit of the Americas in April. The prime minister infuriated the Argentine government by blocking a declaration on its claim to the Falkland Islands.
Baird has insisted Wright did nothing wrong; he merely listened to Barrick's concerns, said nothing, passed the matter over to others responsible for the file and was not involved in any decision relating to the company.
Baird has not explained why Wright would have felt it necessary to participate in three separate calls — on May 14, 25 and 29 — if he had nothing to say and no responsibility for the matter.
Wright has known Barrick founder and board chairman Peter Munk for years. He's particularly close to Munk's son, Anthony, who sits on Barrick's board, and is godfather to Anthony's son.
Wright and Anthony Munk worked together at Onex Corp. (TSX:OCX), the private equity giant from which Wright has taken a leave of absence to work for Harper.
Angus said the whole affair smells of Wright giving Barrick preferential access to discuss its concerns about the impact of Harper's summit performance on its multi-billion-dollar mining operations in Argentina.
"They were lobbying about their business interests and this man is very closely involved with the Munks," Angus said.
"So, again, is this a case of who you know in the PMO: does the Munk family have a secret bat-phone into the Prime Minister's Office? We need to know."
The PMO continued Tuesday to stand squarely behind Wright.
"Not only was there not a conflict of interest, there was no plausible conflict of interest," PMO spokesperson Julie Vaux said in an email.
"Mr. Wright conducted himself properly and in accordance with the rules. At no time did he put himself in a position to further the interests of anyone outside government."
Vaux added that Wright has "no personal or financial interest" in Barrick and reiterated that he was not involved in any decisions as a result of Barrick's lobbying efforts.
Baird has said he ultimately took responsibility for the issue raised by Barrick and that the company's lobbying efforts did not trigger any change in Canada's refusal to recognize Argentina's claim to the Falklands.