06/26/2017 15:12 EDT | Updated 06/26/2017 15:24 EDT

Democracy Watch Files Court Case Against Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson

The group says it's trying to stop an "unethical reign of error."

Adrian Wyld/CP
Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson waits to appear at the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics about the statutory review of Canada's Conflict of Interest Act on Feb. 11, 2013 in Ottawa.

A non-partisan watchdog group has launched a court case against the federal ethics commissioner to stop what its founder calls an "ongoing unethical reign of error."

Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch announced Monday that his group is seeking a judicial review in Federal Court over the refusal of commissioner Mary Dawson to recuse herself from investigating complaints against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Conacher argues Dawson is in a conflict of interest because Trudeau has extended her contract by six months on three separate occasions. Her mandate was set to expire last summer. Dawson received her first extension in July 2016, and her contract was renewed in December 2016 and again this month.

Group alleges conflict

Dawson is probing the prime minister's use of a private helicopter during a family vacation to the Bahamian island owned by the Aga Khan.

At the time of her second extension last December, Dawson had announced she would investigate Trudeau's appearances at private, cash-for-access fundraisers. She later deemed the prime minister did not run afoul of the Conflict of Interest Act.

"The court case directly challenges the Ethics Commissioner's conflict of interest caused by the fact that while she was investigating Prime Minister Trudeau she was given a second six-month contract by the Trudeau Cabinet, a contract that the Cabinet was prohibited from giving her," Conacher said in a media release.

Democracy Watch also argues Dawson's interim appointments are illegal because the Parliament of Canada Act says interim appointments for the role should be made for "a term not exceeding six months."

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, in Trudeau's office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 17, 2016.

The release notes that Trudeau recused himself in May from the process of finding Dawson's replacement in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Government House Leader Bardish Chagger will instead be responsible for filling the role — a solution mocked by opposition parties because Chagger serves in cabinet at the pleasure of the PM.

"But the Ethics Commissioner continues to refuse to acknowledge that the situation also causes a conflict of interest for her," Conacher said.

Democracy Watch also alleges that Dawson has shown bias by opting not to investigate five different complaints made by the group since 2013. Long a thorn in Dawson's side, Democracy Watch has publicly called for her firing since 2010.

In a letter Dawson sent to the group in March, included in the release, the commissioner said that she has no authority over the appointment process for her role.

Watchdog says she will 'fulfill my duties'

"In any event, taken to its logical conclusion, no one would ever be appointed on an interim basis without triggering the need to recuse," she wrote.

"Consequently, I will not address your requests for my recusal other than to inform you that I intend to fulfill my duties as set out by the Parliament of Canada Act until the end of my mandate."

HuffPost Canada reached out to Dawson for her response to Democracy Watch's allegations.

Weeks ago, Trudeau also extended lobbying commissioner Karen Shepherd's term by six months. Shepherd's office is probing the involvement of lobbyists at fundraisers featuring the prime minister.

Liberals unveiled legislation late last month aimed at removing some of the secrecy surrounding fundraisers featuring the prime minister, as well as ministers, leadership contenders and party leaders.

Like Dawson, Shepherd's term was set to expire last year. However, the prime minister has not recused himself from helping to find Shepherd's successor.

The government's pick for official languages commissioner — former Ontario minister Madeleine Meilleur — withdrew her name from consideration after concerns were raised that her partisan past as an Ontario Liberal might affect her ability to objectively hold the Trudeau government to account.

Trouble filling roles

Since taking office in 2015, Trudeau has had the opportunity to choose replacements for five different officers of Parliament. None of those slots have been filled under the new appointments process, which the government touts as merit-based and more open, with job vacancies posted online.

On the heels of the botched Meilleur nomination, New Democrats proposed creating a new multi-party committee to give its approval to anyone nominated by the government to be an officer of Parliament. Liberals ultimately rejected that idea.

With files from The Canadian Press

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