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'Ethical wall' will block conflict of interest, PM's next chief of staff says Add to ...

The man recruited from Bay Street to be Prime Minister Stephen Harper's chief of staff has agreed that an "ethical wall" will be erected and policed by his immediate underling to ensure that his current job does not create conflicts of interest when he assumes the new one.

Nigel Wright, a senior executive who will be on temporary loan from the private-equity firm Onex Corp., has provided the Commons ethics committee with documents related to his plan for steering clear of government discussions related to the far-reaching interests of his firm.

Opposition MPs say conflicts are inevitable given Onex's broad holdings and the fact that Mr. Wright intends to return to the company when his term with the Prime Minister has ended.

"I think it's an impossible task, I really do, to prevent conflict of interest here," said Liberal MP Wayne Easter. Onex is "in everything from health, to aerospace, to tourism, to culture, to electronics, to real estate, to pizza, to Mister Car Wash himself, to computers. So they cover a very wide breath of Canadian society." And the gatekeeper is going to be his deputy, said Mr. Easter. "I mean, how can this work?"

According to the documents, Mr. Wright has agreed that Derek Vanstone, his deputy chief of staff, will be the supervisor of the ethical wall. It will be up to Mr. Vanstone to ensure that his boss does not accidentally get his hands on government information about subjects that are deemed to be off limits.

In addition to a list of 40 companies, Mr. Wright has agreed that he will not participate in any talks or decisions related to the aerospace manufacturing industry, the taxation of Canadian private equity firms, the tax deductibility of cross-border corporate interest expenses, and any other matter that the Conflict of Interest Commissioner adds to the list.

In a case where Mr. Wright comes into the possession of information that could put him in a conflict of interest, he has agreed to turn the matter over to Mr. Vanstone and to inform the Conflict of Interest Commissioner.

He has also agreed to send a memo to the Prime Minister and a long list of ministers and public servants to inform them that they are not to communicate with him regarding any of the subjects that are supposed to be behind the ethical wall.

"Appropriate measures should be taken to ensure that I do not have access to any government information related to the subject matter of the ethical wall from any source within the Government of Canada," Mr. Wright says in that memo.

Mr. Wright, who will take his job in the PMO in the new year when Guy Giorno, the current chief of staff to Mr. Harper, officially exits, will appear before the ethics committee on Tuesday to answer questions from MPs.

He could be in for a rough ride. Opposition members who received copies of his ethical-wall proposal on Monday said they were less than satisfied that potential problems have been averted.

Pat Martin, a New Democrat MP, said the only way conflict of interest can be avoided is if Mr. Wright stays out of the room when government business is discussed.

"Nigel Wright comes to this job with an inherent conflict of interest in that he was associated with the aerospace industry that was directly involved in [the purchase]of the F-35 [fighter jets]" Mr. Martin said. "How can the Prime Minister's chief of staff not be allowed to advise the Prime Minister on the single, most important capital expenditure of the century?"

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