A Liberal MP violated conflict-of-interest rules while promoting her husband’s bid for a seat on Ottawa city council but should not face punishment, the federal ethics watchdog says.
In a report released Wednesday, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion ruled that Ottawa West-Nepean MP Anita Vandenbeld attempted to use her position to influence voters to “further the private interests of her spouse” during last year’s municipal campaign.
However, Dion concluded the matter amounted to “an error in judgment made in good faith.”
Vandenbeld came under scrutiny in October after her voice was featured in a robocall asking constituents to support her husband, Don Dransfield, who was running in the city’s Bay Ward. Dransfield was ultimately not elected as a councillor, a job that comes with a salary of more than $100,000 per year.
“As your federal MP, I’m looking for a municipal counterpart who is going to fight as hard for the people of our community as I do,” Vandenbeld could be heard saying in the recording.
Listen to a recording of the robocall, posted online by CBC reporter Laura Osman:
She also canvassed door-to-door and sent letters to constituents that identified her as the local MP and asked them to support her husband’s campaign.
In October, Conservative ethics critic Peter Kent called on the commissioner to investigate if Vandenbeld violated conflict rules, saying at the time that “using one’s influence as an elected Member to help a family member is both morally and ethically wrong.”
Vandenbeld and her lawyers argued that she did not believe running for public office is a “private interest” to be advanced. Dion concluded since the position of city councillor comes with a six-figure salary and benefits over four years, it “clearly constitutes a private interest.”
Vandenbeld also said her status as an MP was invoked in the letter and robocalls because, in what she described as a “misinformation” campaign, a rival candidate of her husband’s was claiming to have her support.
“Whatever the motivation for writing a letter to voters and recording an [interactive voice response] message, in my view, the purpose of Ms. Vandenbeld’s actions was the same in either case, and this was to ensure that voters made the connection between the candidacy of her spouse and an endorsement by the local Member of Parliament,” Dion wrote in the report.
Dion also expressed concerns about how Vandenbeld used social media to promote her husband’s bid.
“While Ms. Vandenbeld described these accounts as purely partisan, I found it may not be so clear to members of the public that her social media accounts, which mention her title, link to her Member’s website and contain posts relating to her role as a Member, were not parliamentary accounts,” he wrote. “Members should be mindful of this when deciding what materials to post on such accounts.”
While Dransfield’s election loss ultimately meant “no private interests were furthered,” the commissioner found Vandenbeld violated a section of the Conflict of Interest Code for MPs about “attempting” to use the position to advance private interests.
But the commissioner noted that Vandenbeld made “significant efforts to comply with the rules that she had considered” by ensuring no parliamentary resources were used in the campaign and that staffers volunteering on Dransfield’s campaign did so outside of work hours.
MP accepts commissioner’s findings
Dion also gave her credit for ceasing campaign activities and seeking his advice after questions arose about her participation.
“I therefore recommend that no sanction be imposed,” he wrote at the end of the nearly 20-page report.
In a statement to HuffPost Canada, Vandenbeld said she accepts the commissioner’s findings.
“I believe that I was being open and transparent by identifying myself and my relationship while asking people to consider voting for Don. Many other MPs have supported their spouses in the past,” she said.
“In all my years of encouraging democratic participation, I continue to believe that those who put themselves forward to seek election to public office, from all parties, do so out of a desire to serve and to make a better world, not out of a private financial interest.”
Watch: Vandenbeld, other MPs pay tribute to late MP Paul Dewar
Vandenbeld expressed hope that the report will help clarify what is permissible for MPs in other campaigns.
“I have always set a high standard for myself with regard to my integrity and conduct as a Member of Parliament, and I want to reassure my constituents that I will always continue to do so.”
Vandenbeld, first elected in 2015, is seeking re-election this fall.