OTTAWA — The NDP will be asking the ethics commissioner Thursday to reopen a probe into Nigel Wright’s $90,000 cheque to a sitting senator, The Huffington Post Canada has learned. But even if Mary Dawson reopens her investigation into Wright’s actions, any penalty she could levy against Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff will be minor.
During his time in the Prime Minister’s Office, Wright was subject to the Conflict of Interest Act, which bans public officer holders from giving preferential treatment. Wright has acknowledged he wrote a personal cheque for $90,172.24 to repay Senator Mike Duffy’s inappropriate housing expenses. The RCMP alleged in court documents that Wright cooked up a deal to repay Duffy’s expenses if the senator stayed silent and didn’t participate in an audit into his housing claims.
Emails published in those court documents also indicate Wright tried to direct a Senate committee reviewing Duffy’s housing expenses.
On Tuesday, the RCMP confirmed it had dropped its investigation into Wright’s actions and would not be laying any charges. The Mounties’ investigation into Duffy’s actions continues.
However Dawson, the ethics watchdog, is still mulling whether or not to reopen her investigation. She had to suspend her conflict-of-interest probe into Wright’s involvement in the Senate scandal after the RCMP began its work.
But even if Dawson re-opens her probe, Wright may face few penalties if she finds against him. The ethics watchdog won’t be able to fine him — fines of up to $500 are only imposed for administrative errors or failures to disclose, her office confirmed. She will only be able to conduct an examination and publish a report.
“While there are no monetary penalties associated with a finding that a public office holder breached their obligations under the Act, the fact that the report is made public is a sanction in itself,” communications officer Jocelyne Brisebois wrote in an email.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus told HuffPost the NDP would be sending the ethics commissioner a letter Thursday urging her to reopen the investigation.
“There is something very wrong about the senior advisor to the Prime Minister cutting a cheque to a sitting senator in order to make a political problem go away,” Angus wrote in an email.
The NDP MP said the allegations raised in the court document filed by the RCMP paint a picture of a deal between the PMO and Duffy that may have been an attempt to whitewash an audit.
“This sordid affair has damaged the public's trust in political life under Stephen Harper. Ms. Dawson has an obligation to re-establish some level of ethical credibility to politics. This is her job. This is her obligation,” Angus wrote.
Margot Booth, a spokeswoman for the Commissioner, said one of the issues Dawson is considering is whether she must wait until the Mounties have completed their investigation into Duffy’s actions before reopening the probe into Wright’s actions.
“We are not in a position to comment further at this time,” Booth said.
The Conflict of Interest Act states that Dawson “may not continue her examination until any investigation or charge in respect of the same subject-matter has been finally disposed of.”
Angus acknowledged Dawson has little power and he said she “has previously shown very little desire to challenge sitting politicians.”
“[But] if she doesn't take up her responsibility, it will send a message that anything goes in the Ottawa of Stephen Harper,” he said.
Wright is expecting Dawson will restart her work. A source close to him told HuffPost Tuesday that it wasn’t clear “what the worst could be” but the stakes would be nothing compared to a criminal conviction.