10/08/2015 04:00 EDT | Updated 10/08/2016 01:12 EDT

Conservative supported radio licence bids despite conflict-of-interest guideline

OTTAWA — Conservative candidate Parm Gill sent letters of support to Canada's broadcast regulator on behalf of two radio licence applicants in Brampton, Ont., while a parliamentary secretary — despite guidelines from the federal ethics commissioner forbidding such interventions.

Gill, who is seeking re-election, wrote the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in praise of competing applications for AM licences in May when he was parliamentary secretary to the international trade minister.

Federal conflict of interest and ethics commissioner Mary Dawson issued guidelines in October 2013 saying ministers and parliamentary secretaries "may not under any circumstances" attempt to intervene in the decision-making process of an administrative tribunal, such as the CRTC, on behalf of any constituent in any riding.

Such contact may be considered an attempt to influence a decision in breach of the Conflict of Interest Act, Dawson wrote in a directive on serving constituents for public office holders, as ministers and parliamentary secretaries are known under the law.

Section nine of the act says no public office holder may use their position to seek to influence a decision "to improperly further another person's private interests."

Dawson "will look into the matter" of Gill's letters "before determining what action, if any, should be taken," said Margot Booth, a spokeswoman for the commissioner.

Dawson issued the guidance following public controversies over letters to the CRTC from a cabinet minister and several parliamentary secretaries.

In February 2013, Dawson admonished Jim Flaherty, then finance minister, and two parliamentary secretaries — Eve Adams and Colin Carrie — for breaching the Conflict of Interest Act by writing letters to the broadcast regulator in support of radio licence applications.

A parliamentary secretary serves as a liaison between the minister and caucus, occasionally represents the minister publicly and may be given policy-related duties, according to the Parliament of Canada website.

Gill did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his letters, recently discovered by The Canadian Press during a routine review of CRTC records.

Gill was first elected to the House of Commons in May 2011, defeating Liberal Ruby Dhalla in Brampton-Springdale, northwest of Toronto. He is currently running in the newly created Brampton North, one of the hotly contested ridings in the heavily populated region that could be key to party fortunes on Oct. 19.

In a May 4 letter, Gill wrote in support of Ravinder Singh Pannu's application for a Brampton-based station to serve the ethnic English-speaking community of the Greater Toronto Area, saying it would help deliver necessary information to new Canadians.

The programming would deal with health concerns, seniors, religion, art and culture, "which is all important for creating a vibrant city," Gill said in the letter.

A week later, Gill wrote a similar letter in support of Jasvir Sandhu's Radio Humsafar, which applied for a licence to operate an AM station in Brampton that would serve at least 14 ethnic groups in 11 languages.

The applicants are among three competing to broadcast at 1350 on the AM dial. The CRTC has yet to decide on the proposals.

Pannu declined comment since his application is still before the broadcast regulator.

Sandhu said Gill was asked to write a letter to ensure his licence bid had "maximum support from everywhere," though he didn't know why Gill supported competing applicants. 

Sandhu dismissed the notion Gill was writing as a parliamentary secretary.

"The letter is from an MP, because he's representing the constituency," Sandhu said. "This is very common practice."

Section 64 of the Conflict of Interest Act says nothing in the act bars a member of the House of Commons who is a public office holder from activities he or she would normally carry out as an MP.

However, in her 2013 guidelines, Dawson says the section does not allow ministers and parliamentary secretaries to "engage in any activities that would contravene their obligations under the Act."

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Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press