Federal minister in conflict over surf clam licence, ethics commissioner says

Ethics commissioner said Dominic LeBlanc knew wife’s cousin was involved in Five Nations Clam Co

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc was found in breach of conflict of interest rules Wednesday for approving an Arctic surf clam licence to a company that employed a family member — a violation that comes with no penalties.

Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion said in a report issued Wednesday that LeBlanc knew his wife’s first cousin was involved in the Five Nations Clam Co. and knew the cousin would have benefited financially when awarding the company a multi-million dollar license in February.

Dion says LeBlanc should have recused himself from the decision.

“If a public office holder is aware of a potential opportunity to further the private interests of a relative through the exercise of an official power, duty or function, the public office holder must be vigilant in avoiding such conflicts of interest.”

The decision comes less than two months after the government cancelled the licence and started the process over to award a fourth Arctic surf clam license to encourage Indigenous participation.

LeBlanc said Wednesday he accepts Dion’s findings “without reservation.”

“Canadians expect when mistakes are made that people assume those mistakes and, more importantly, commit to doing better in the future and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

However, the veteran MP also qualified that Dion’s ruling ”confirms that no financial benefit was created in this circumstance and no preferential treatment was given.”

The deal to award a fourth fishing licence for Arctic surf clams would have ended a 19-year monopoly on the Arctic clam fishery held by Clearwater Seafoods, offering 25 per cent of the catch to local Indigenous communities.

But it first came under scrutiny when documents filed in a court challenge of the decision suggested the company did not meet the federal government’s eligibility requirements, and that Five Nations Clam Co. had close ties to the federal Liberal party – including the family ties to LeBlanc, and also connections to one current and one former Liberal MP.

LeBlanc was shuffled out as fisheries minister in July, the same month the government decided to cancel the license and start the process over.

New Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said in August this cancellation had nothing to do with the ethics issue facing LeBlanc and that he didn’t think LeBlanc had acted inappropriately.

Cancelling the licence means Clearwater Seafoods will continue their monopoly at least until 2020.

Court documents show LeBlanc awarded the licence to Five Nations in February despite knowing the bid didn’t meet all the parameters of the tender.

LeBlanc argued that he is not close with Theriault and that he did not believe Theriault’s spousal ties would define him as a relative within the conflict of interest law.

“One of my wife’s 60 first cousins was involved in one of the proposals. I obviously didn’t think that this was caught by the definition of relative or family in the act,” LeBlanc said Wednesday.

Dion disagreed with this, and also noted LeBlanc met with Theriault prior to awarding the clam licence to Five Nations, during which time they discussed the issue.

“The inclusion of Mr. Theriault’s name in the proposal, while no doubt adding to its credibility due to his extensive involvement in the seafood industry and with First Nations in New Brunswick, should have put Mr. LeBlanc on notice of the existence of a potential conflict,” Dion writes in his ruling.

LeBlanc says he accepts Dion’s determination on this point, but a member of his staff stressed this marks the first time the commissioner has defined what constitutes a family member.

No penalty is attached to the ruling. Only financial penalties exist under conflict law and they only apply for certain types of breaches. This case isn’t one of those cases, a spokeswoman for the commissioner’s office said.

The only direct result of this ruling is “shedding light on the activity examined,” she said.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer stopped short of calling for LeBlanc’s resignation, saying only he condemns the culture in government that allowed this to occur.

“The prime minister didn’t resign when he was found guilty of breaking these rules, the minister of finance, himself, didn’t resign when he was found to have breached these types of rules, so we have no expectation that somehow they’ll start applying this now.”

The Liberals have faced a number of ethics probes since taking office in 2015.

Last year, then-commissioner Mary Dawson found Prime Minister Justin Trudeau broke Canada’s ethics laws over two all-expenses-paid family trips to a private island in the Bahamas owned by the Aga Khan. Trudeau also had to pay a $100 fine earlier this year for failing to disclosing a gift of sunglasses from the premier of P.E.I.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau has also been investigated several times by the ethics czar. He was cleared in two of those probes, which involved sponsoring a bill that reformed Canadian pension regulations while he and his family members held shares in a pension firm as well as accusations of insider trading over the sale of those shares.

He was fined $200, however, for failing to disclose a villa he owns in France via a holding company.

NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said in a tweet the ruling is “a sad reminder that this government’s ethical shortcuts are a real roadblock to reconciliation and sustainable development for Indigenous communities.”

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press

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