POLITICS

Ethics watchdog raps former Jason Kenney aide over gala tickets

02/27/2015 11:51 EST | Updated 04/29/2015 05:59 EDT
A former top adviser to then-Employment Minister Jason Kenney has had his knuckles rapped by the federal ethics watchdog for accepting gala tickets from companies and interest groups registered to lobby his own department.

In a report released Thursday, Ethics and Conflict of Interest Commissioner Mary Dawson ruled that senior policy adviser Michael Bonner broke the rules governing gifts and benefits by accepting invitations to three separate events:

- The National Arts Centre gala, to which he was invited by Vale Canada Ltd.

- The annual reception and dinner hosted by the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada.

- The annual alumni dinner for the Parliamentary Internship Program, to which he was invited by the Forest Products Association of Canada in the fall of 2013.

Dawson concluded that, at the time those invitations were issued, all three organizations were "stakeholders" registered to lobby the department — "particularly," she noted in her executive summary, "in areas related to Mr. Bonner’s responsibilities as a senior policy adviser."

"This should have put him on notice that the invitations might reasonably be seen to have been given to influence him in respect of his official responsibilities," she wrote.

"It should have been clear to Mr. Bonner that the invitations did not meet the acceptability test set out in section 11 of the [Conflict of Interest Act]."

Complaint received in November, 2013

According to the report, in November 2013, Dawson received a complaint about Bonner's activities from an unidentified "member of the public" that "raised concerns" related to four potential contraventions of the Act.

The same individual also contacted the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, who referred the case to the ethics commissioner.

After an initial review, Dawson launched a formal examination last February. She heard from 12 interested parties, including representatives from the organizations involved, departmental officials, Kenney's then-acting chief of staff and the unnamed complainant.

Meanwhile, Bonner — who was represented by one-time Conservative Party lawyer Paul Lepsoe — responded to her initial correspondence by denying any wrongdoing, the report reveals.

"[He] said that he did not believe there had been any impropriety whatsoever. None of the three organizations that had given him invitations had made any requests of him."

Bonner also argued the invitations were to standard Ottawa social events, and added it was "commonplace that guests, including public office holders, be invited to attend."

He also said the ticket prices were under the $200 threshold required for public disclosure.

Bonner told Dawson that when he was hired by Kenney, he had only recently returned to Canada after a long absence abroad and had a "wide mandate to conduct outside liaison on behalf of the minister’s office," the report continued.

Events 'part of Ottawa scene,' ex-staffer claimed

"He wrote that the events in question were all part of the 'Ottawa Scene' and appeared to him to be the type that he should be attending in terms of the outreach he was supposed to be doing."

He also informed the commissioner that "without any acknowledgement of impropriety," he had repaid the costs of the tickets — $195 each for two tickets to the NAC Gala, $70 plus tax for the aerospace reception and $125 for the Parliamentary Internship Dinner.

Dawson, however, noted Bonner failed to contact her office to find out if he was allowed to accept the invitations in the first place, and made the payments only after being notified of the examination.

The report also notes Bonner was unable to produce emails requested by the commissioner, which he said had been deleted under standard departmental policy.

"A request to the Chief Information Officer for Mr. Bonner’s emails was unsuccessful," the report said.

In her closing observations, Dawson said she hopes the report will remind to all public office holders of the rules surrounding the acceptance and disclosure of gifts, invitations and other advantages.

Bonner accepts ruling

"The test is not whether the donor intended to influence the recipient, nor whether that recipient was indeed influenced," she notes. "The test is whether a reasonable person might reasonably think that the gift or other advantage was given to influence the individual receiving the gift."

She does not appear to have imposed sanctions or recommended further action on the file.

Kenney's office directed questions to Bonner, who, a spokeswoman noted, "is a private citizen" who has not been employed by the government since last October.

In a statement to CBC News, Bonner said he "deeply regrets" the outcome.

"I thought I'd conducted research and been diligent in determining I could attend, and diligent in repaying the cost of tickets to the three events mentioned in the report," he noted. 

"The commissioner has the power to determine that I was wrong and I respect that she has done so."

Bonner added that he had been out of the country for 10 years when he took the job with Kenney.

"I was not as familiar as I should have been with these new rules," he told CBC News. 

"I saw many staff members and colleagues at social events in Ottawa and accepted three invitations on that basis and after research into the propriety of going. As the commissioner indicated, checking with her before accepting an invitation should have been done."

In addition to the event invitations, the letter identified three other possible improprieties on Bonner's part — using his departmental Blackberry for "non-government related purpose," working as a paid consultant while simultaneously serving the minister, and a third that was based on unfounded "speculation" and was not pursued.

Those allegations were ultimately dismissed by the commissioner.