07/14/2011 12:08 EDT | Updated 09/13/2011 05:12 EDT

Helena Guergis, Former MP, Broke Conflict-Of-Interest Rules

Flickr: Tomato Geezer

THE CANADIAN PRESS -- OTTAWA - At least some of Stephen Harper's concerns about his former minister Helena Guergis were borne out Thursday by the federal ethics watchdog, who found the former Ontario MP had breached conflict-of-interest rules.

When the prime minister turfed Guergis from cabinet and caucus in April 2010, it was over then-unspecified allegations of ethical breaches and possible criminal activity.

A party lawyer later said it was feared she was using her office to lend an "aura of connectedness" to her husband Rahim Jaffer as he tried to expand his consulting business.

On the ethical front, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson found that Guergis used her office to help further Jaffer's interests when she wrote a letter on behalf of a constituent who was also a business contact of her husband's.

There is no sanction for the former MP, who lost her seat in the May 2 election.

New Democrat MP Pat Martin, who sat on a Commons committee that investigated allegations Jaffer was using Guergis' office to engage in illegal lobbying, said he's disappointed it took so long for the report to be published.

A year later, the lobbying commissioner also has yet to report on her own investigation into Jaffer's activities.

"The inordinate length of time for these investigations just speaks to a real weakness in our conflict of interest and ethics regime in our Parliament," Martin said.

"It's really of no use to us to criticize somebody whose political career is long over, and harkens back to the last Parliament. We need much tighter action if we're going to have any meaningful reform or even to strike fear into sitting politicians."

Messages left with Jaffer in an effort to contact the couple were not returned.

The breaches of the Conflict of Interest Code for MPs revolve around a September 2009 letter Guergis sent to municipal politicians in her riding of Simcoe-Grey — including a cousin who sat on council.

On Commons letterhead, Guergis had asked them to consider a waste management pitch by local entrepreneur Jim Wright of Wright Tech Systems, a man she was aware had met and spoken to Jaffer in the past about business.

Guergis told Dawson she satisfied herself before she sent the letter that Jaffer was no longer talking to Wright about ventures.

"For her part, Ms. Guergis said she did have concerns about a potential conflict of interest but she had not reason to doubt what her husband told her," Dawson wrote.

But Jaffer did continue to talk to Wright about business activities, even several months after the letter was sent. Dawson said Guergis should have gone with her first instincts, and not sent the letter.

She found that Guergis "acted in a way to further the private interests of her husband, Mr. Jaffer."

"The principles ... of the code articulate an expectation that members carry out their duties and responsibilities and arrange their private affairs in a way that withstands the closest public scrutiny and avoids perceptions of conflict of interest," Dawson said.

Harper's office had approached Dawson's office at the time of Guergis's ouster last year, directing them to a private investigator who was said to have troubling information about the couple.

But an employee in Dawson's office contacted investigator Derrick Snowdy and heard no specific allegation. The request for an investigation ultimately came from New Democrat MP Libby Davies.

Snowdy says the person from Dawson's office didn't try very hard to delve into the information he had collected over the course of an investigation into a business associate of Jaffer's, Nazim Gillani.

"I left it obviously hanging in the air that if he asked me to tell him what I actually said, I would. He told me that would not be necessary and said 'it appears we do not have a complaint,' then he hung up," Snowdy said.

"I was stunned. I knew then nobody wanted anybody asking questions or speaking out of turn."

The RCMP also talked to Snowdy, but after looking into the case said last summer they could find "no substance" to the allegations against Guergis and Jaffer.

Dawson revealed some of her frustrations in her report over inconsistencies in testimony by Guergis, her staff and Jaffer, and also by difficulties she faced in getting documents she needed for the investigation. A parliamentary committee has also criticized Jaffer for offering contradictory pieces of testimony when they grilled him on alleged illegal lobbying allegations.

"It appeared, at times, that these witnesses were not entirely forthcoming, but were possibly influenced by a desire to protect another person," Dawson wrote.

The House of Commons won't allow Dawson to gain access directly to documents in MPs offices without first getting their permission. That meant Guergis and her lawyer examined the documents first before handing them over to the ethics commissioner.

Guergis didn't provide certain documents that Dawson found elsewhere, and changed her story about when different letters were composed and signed. One draft letter that an executive assistant produced would have suggested that Guergis wrote to Simcoe County officials at the direct request of her husband, but that staffer later said she was mistaken about the content and the date.

Dawson herself couldn't directly see or search for drafts of emails and letters in Guergis' computers. She complained about this obstacle in her recent annual report.

"I am left with general concern that I cannot be certain, without direct access to documents, that I have received all relevant documents during the course of this investigation."

Martin expressed unease over the idea of an outside body being able to delve into the computers of MPs, who enjoy certain privileges.

But he said a potential solution might be to find a system where searches and their results would be done completely in camera.

Jaffer and Guergis have been out of the public eye since the May election. The couple had a baby boy late last year, their first child.