NDP MP Charlie Angus accused Canada’s public works minister Thursday of hiding "behind disabled children" to deflect questions about a project that broke conflict-of-interest rules.
Earlier this week, the federal ethics commissioner found that Diane Finley violated the rules by showing “preferential treatment” when she awarded $1 million to a Toronto-area community centre to make it accessible for people with disabilities. The project was backed by a community leader who has close ties to senior Tories, including Prime Minister Harper.
“She hides behind disabled children to explain why she was feeling guilty for breaking the rules to give money to her friends,” said Angus before getting cut off by heckling in the House.
Finley responded by accusing Angus of not reading the 40-page report from the ethics watchdog.
“The ethics commissioner made it very clear that the prime minister had no participation in this decision, which projects were evaluated, or even how they were evaluated, and what was awarded any funding,” she said. She also added she had no personal connection to the project backers.
The report highlights how the proposal to upgrade the Markham Centre for Skills and Independence failed to meet the government's basic criteria for funding, but was approved anyway.
In 2011, Finley - who was then minister of human resources and social development - had asked Nigel Wright, then Harper's chief of staff, if the project was “important.”
“According to Mr. Wright, he did not intend to suggest to Ms. Finley that funding should be approved for the Markham project, only that it was important that the matter be considered carefully and fairly,” the report reads.
"Mr. Wright wrote that he told her he had been asked by the Prime Minister to 'sort it out.'"
Finley's chief of staff also had conversations about the project with Wright and Ray Novak, Harper's principal secretary at the time who is now his chief of staff.
Harper addressed the ethics breach on Tuesday, saying he “had no specific knowledge of these applications nor any preference in what was chosen.” He added his that he believed Finley “was acting in good faith.”
The controversial project proposal was submitted by Rabbi Chaim Mendelsohn on behalf of the Canadian Federation of Chabad Lubavitch, a Jewish community outreach group. Mendelsohn described former foreign affairs minister John Baird as a “very dear friend” and he also accompanied Harper on a trip to Israel in January 2014. A Chabad Lubavitch website says Mendelsohn also helped Harper's staff plan the first-ever Hanukkah celebration to take place at 24 Sussex Drive.
In her report, ethics commissioner Mary Dawson said she found the project proposal submitted by Mendelsohn "clearly received preferential treatment." She notes the group was allowed to submit information to supplement its original proposal, something no other applicant was permitted to do.
In the end, the Markham community centre lost its federal funding after a failure to secure necessary construction permits. Dawson says approximately $50,000 of the allotted funds were spent, and the rest returned.
“The funding decision may have been influenced by political considerations,” Dawson's report states. “But the reasons why this proposal was given preferential treatment remains unclear.”
With files from Althia Raj
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