OTTAWA — Lobbying commissioner Karen Shepherd says her investigators are looking into allegations that lobbyists have been involved in Liberal fundraisers featuring cabinet ministers.
Shepherd says lobbyists participating in fundraising events could potentially create a conflict of interest for ministers by making them feel a "sense of obligation."
And that would be a violation of the Lobbying Code of Conduct.
Shepherd is launching the investigation after receiving a complaint from advocacy group Democracy Watch about Barry Sherman, chairman of generic drug giant Apotex, selling tickets to a $500-a-head fundraiser early next month in Toronto that features Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
Karen Shepherd appears at Commons ethics committee on Parliament Hill in 2012. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Shepherd says she'll also look more generally at media reports of other fundraisers involving ministers — including a $1,500-a-head fundraiser in Halifax, also featuring Morneau — and whether lobbyists may have been in attendance or involved in organizing the events or in selling tickets.
Ethics commissioner Mary Dawson says the fundraisers give rise to the appearance of unfair access to cabinet ministers but there's nothing in the current conflict-of-interest legislation prohibiting such events.
Shepherd and Dawson were both questioned Thursday about the so-called "cash-for-access" events during appearances before the Commons ethics committee.
"Because I take all allegations seriously, I am currently looking into the matter," Shepherd told the committee.
"We're seeing this in the media and so on that this is an issue that is potentially creating a real or apparent conflict of interest, which is why I'm looking into it."
"Because I take all allegations seriously, I am currently looking into the matter."
It is not clear whether registered lobbyists have, in fact, attended any of the fundraisers. The Liberal party says only that the names of all donors and their contributions are disclosed publicly to Elections Canada, which does not specify the events at which donations were made.
As for Sherman, his company does lobby the federal government, primarily about drug patent legislation, trade deals that impact patents and generic drug regulations. But Apotex's registration on the lobby register lists Sherman himself as spending less than 20 per cent of his time on lobbying — which means he doesn't need to personally register as a lobbyist.
Shepherd has ruled on similar cases in the past, involving two registered lobbyists who sold tickets to a 2009 fundraiser for Conservative MP Lisa Raitt's riding association. Raitt was natural resources minister at the time.
In those cases, Shepherd found that the two men were registered to lobby on issues that fell within Raitt's purview as minister, that their ticket-selling advanced Raitt's private interest in funding her re-election campaign and that their actions therefore placed Raitt in an apparent conflict of interest.
It is not clear that Sherman — or anyone else — meets the same criteria.
Events appear to violate Trudeau's guidelines
However, the events do appear to violate the guidelines for ministerial conduct that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself issued. They state that "there should be no preferential access to government, or appearance of preferential access, accorded to individuals or organizations because they have made financial contributions to politicians and political parties."
Dawson told the committee she has no mandate to enforce Trudeau's guidelines and that the conflict of interest code she does enforce doesn't go that far.
"I guess if you want it enforced, you put it in my act," she said.
Pressed by Conservative MP Pat Kelly, Dawson allowed there "could be one or two" cases she might look into "if I had other information that there was really a possible problem."
"I don't ignore these things," she said. "But there's no point commencing an investigation if there doesn't seem to be grounds under the code."
"When the rules are followed, no conflict of interest can exist."
In the House of Commons, Conservative and New Democrat MPs continued to hammer the government over the fundraisers.
"If these cash-for-access fundraisers do not break the law, then clearly the law is broken," said NDP MP Tracey Ramsey.
Trudeau was not in the Commons on Thursday but his government House leader Bardish Chagger repeated the same arguments the prime minister has made all week: federal parties are subject to the most stringent financing rules in the country, with individual donations limited to $1,500 per year and corporate donations banned altogether.
"When the rules are followed, no conflict of interest can exist," Chagger insisted.