POLITICS

Diane Finley's Ethics Rule Breach Should Be Reviewed By Committee: NDP

03/24/2015 07:45 EDT | Updated 03/24/2015 10:59 EDT

New Democrat MP Charlie Angus wants the House ethics committee to launch its own investigation into the allegedly preferential treatment that netted a Markham-based community centre more than a million dollars in federal funding.

Earlier this month, Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson concluded that then-human resources minister Diane Finley had violated the conflict of interest laws by giving money earmarked for accessibility projects to the Markham Centre for Skills and Independence in 2011. Finley is now the public works minister.

"I found that the Markham proposal clearly received preferential treatment," Dawson wrote in her report.

Report raises questions: NDP

The proposal, which was submitted by Rabbi Chaim Mendelsohn on behalf of the Canadian Federation of Chabad Lubavitch, was added at Finley’s request to four projects already selected from 167 eligible proposals.

It also boasted the backing of several high-profile Conservatives, including then-foreign affairs minister John Baird and former environment minister Peter Kent, both of whom reportedly endorsed the project, Dawson noted in her report, as well as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, and other senior political staff.

The Markham centre was ultimately awarded $1,044,000 for making the facility fully accessible to people with disabilities, although all but $50,000 of that money was eventually returned to the government when the centre was unable to proceed with the project due to cost and logistical difficulties.

Just before the House broke for the week-long March constituency break, Angus served notice that he would be proposing that the committee launch a full review of the report.

"This is something that should be looked at by our committee," Angus told CBC News on Monday.

'Traditionally, this is what a committee such as ethics would have dealt with [and] certainly, Minister Finley can explain why it was within her purview to interfere in the process, to pick such a dead-dog project."

He said the report also raises questions over whether "there is larger political interference" in a funding program that "really should be here to benefit those people who need the most support from government."

'Almost unprecedented'

A finding of wrongdoing against a minister "is almost unprecedented under Mary Dawson's watch," he added.

"It also raises a lot more questions than it answers. Why was it that the Prime Minister's Office was involved in this project? The minister's answers in the House telling us that she thought it was a great project, so that she would ignore the obvious red flags put up by her department and officials? Is this how they do business? We need to clear the air on this."

When questioned about the report in the House, Finley has repeatedly stated that she believed the proposal "was a valid project that was in the public interest." She has also said she accepts the findings of the ethics commissioner.

If adopted, the NDP motion would see several key players named in the report invited to appear as witnesses, including Finley herself, Rabbi Mendelsohn, Baird, Kent and Wright, as well as his successor, Ray Novak.

And while he acknowledges that it has become impossible to predict what will happen at committee — "maybe it will be shut down, maybe they'll pull votes" — Angus is ready to make the case for an investigation to his Conservative colleagues this afternoon.

"To reassure the public that this government actually knows what they're doing, and is doing in the interests of the public, not just the party, they should be more than willing to have the minister and other officials come before committee," he said.

The meeting got underway at 3:30 p.m. ET.

Initially, it was public, which gave Angus the opportunity to lay out the case for his proposal. That prompted Liberal MP Scott Simms to suggest that the witness list be expanded to include Prime Minister Stephen Harper as well.

Angus, however, rejected the proposed amendment, which he felt was not appropriate at this time.

Shortly after that exchange, the Conservatives used their majority to force the meeting behind closed doors.

Angus appeals to information watchdog

The committee proposal isn't the only avenue of inquiry being considered by the New Democrats as they continue to push for more scrutiny of the file.

Last week, Angus asked the federal information commissioner to look into what he described as "the disappearance of departmental correspondence between ministers in relation to these ethical breaches and the funding of the Markham project."

In a letter to Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, he noted that the "ethical breach" involved more than just Finley.

"It appears that Mr. Kent may have sent a letter to Ms. Finley sometime in early summer of 2011 that could speak to the unanswered question of why the project was funded and show the project being influenced by political considerations," he wrote.

"Ministers Kent and Finley claim not to remember this letter, however, three departmental officials recall its existence and vague details within it."

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