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Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson thinks it’s time to tighten rules governing gifts and meals. (DAVE CHAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson thinks it’s time to tighten rules governing gifts and meals. (DAVE CHAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Ethics commissioner wants to get tough on MPs who don’t declare gifts Add to ...

The five MPs met the Crown Prince of Kuwait, travelled to a desert oasis and discussed world affairs with senior Kuwaiti officials. And when the $60,000 Parliamentary trip wrapped up just days before the 2011 election campaign began, they received several gifts, including Bulgari watches.

Such luxury pieces sell in Canada for thousands of dollars, and MPs are required to disclose all gifts worth more than $500 in a public registry. The registry shows declarations from two of the five, both Conservatives. Two Liberals – then-Speaker Peter Milliken and Raymonde Folco – retired before the 60-day limit for disclosure, and the registry lists only current MPs. The fifth MP, Liberal Judy Foote, said she didn’t think the gifts were worth $500 and only declared them on Wednesday after calls from The Globe and Mail.

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It is the kind of thing that has federal ethics commissioner Mary Dawson increasingly frustrated that MPs are not following their own rules.

To clear up any possible confusion, she wants MPs to declare every gift they receive worth more than $30, and she wants the power to fine those who break the rules. She also wants MPs to consider whether free meals should qualify as gifts.

"My sense is the rules say one thing and many MPs are doing something completely different," Ms. Dawson said in an interview this week in her Ottawa office.

The commissioner said she understands MPs will receive gifts abroad as part of regular protocol, and she did not comment on individual MPs. However, the trip to Kuwait and Sweden in March, 2011, is an example of how the current rules are not always followed. The registry shows that Conservative MPs Kevin Sorenson and Pierre Poilievre disclosed the gifts. Mr. Poilievre, a parliamentary secretary, forfeited the Bulgari Rettangolo watch to the Canadian government. Mr. Sorenson said he and his wife both received watches on the trip, but suggested it would have been diplomatically awkward not to accept.

"You’ve got to be careful about turning down a gift," Mr. Sorenson said, adding that he followed the advice of the ethics commissioner and disclosed every item he and his wife received, including two cell phones, a model ship and a toy tea set.

As for Mr. Milliken and Ms. Folco, the commission won’t say if they declared any gifts before they retired. They say records of MPs are destroyed once they leave the job. Ms. Folco could not be reached. Mr. Milliken said in an interview that he asked his staff to file a report but can’t remember if it was completed.

"I certainly was aware that [the Bulgari watch] was worth more than $500, and so it had to be declared," Mr. Milliken said. "Somebody had told me about the value of the thing. It wasn’t an expert. They said, ‘Those things are worth a whole lot of money.’ And I said, ‘Oh, really?’ I had no idea."

Howard Appotive, owner of Howard Fine Jewellers in Ottawa, says the estimated starting price to order a Bulgari Rettangolo watch with a metal strap would be about $4,000.

Calling from her home in Newfoundland, Ms. Foote said she did not declare the gifts until after The Globe and Mail called because she’d never heard of the watch maker and thought the timepiece wasn’t worth much. After digging it out of her closet to find the make, she spelled out “B-V-L-G-A-R-I” (the company’s logo uses the Latin form of the letter "u") and sounded shocked that it could be worth thousands of dollars.

"I’ve never heard of the name of the watch before in my life," she said. "The only watch I wear is about $30."

The registry currently shows 34 MPs have declared gifts since the rules were updated in June, 2009. A House of Commons committee is reviewing the conflict of interest code for MPs, and Ms. Dawson says MPs need to change the rules again and take a close look at free meals.

"It gets mixed up with this observation that, you know, ‘You can’t buy me with a dinner.’ People are forever saying that," she said. "Well, you still shouldn’t take an expensive ... dinner from somebody who’s looking for something from you. At least, that’s what the rule says."

During weekday evenings when the Commons is in session, MPs often hop from one reception to the next. Grazing on the free food and drinks often serves as dinner for MPs, who say these receptions allow them to learn about issues while on a busy schedule.

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