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.
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.
Conservative MP Harold Albrecht said he’s often invited to four or more receptions on the Hill in a single evening. He said he has no problem with one of the commissioner’s suggestions – that a list of all Parliament Hill receptions for MPs be posted publicly – provided MPs aren’t on the hook to file new reports.
"To have it almost implied that it was somehow influencing you or buying your support of that particular group is rather simplistic," Mr. Albrecht said.
Liberal House Leader Marc Garneau agrees the rules need an update, but said a $30 reporting rule would be unmanageable.
"It starts to get down to a level where you’re sort of asking yourself, ‘How much was this food worth?’ and ‘How much was this scotch worth?’" he said.
There are two sets of ethics rules. A conflict of interest code governs MPs and includes the $500 threshold for disclosing gifts. A second set of rules for about 1,100 public office holders – including cabinet ministers, their senior staff and senior public servants – is included in the Conflict of Interest Act and requires the disclosure of gifts worth $200 or more. The act requires gifts above $1,000 to be forfeited to the government. No upper limit exists for MPs.
Joe Preston, the Conservative chair of the procedure and house affairs committee studying the rules, said a survey has been sent to all MPs asking for their suggestions. He said the concerns of Ms. Dawson and others will be studied in depth this fall before a decision is made on whether to make changes.
Some MPs are already disclosing dinner invitations. For instance, Conservative MP Stella Ambler declared that she attended a Health Institute dinner earlier this month in Ottawa at the invitation of a Merck Pharmaceuticals lobbyist. Other MPs have declared receiving tickets to special events in their area, such as the Juno Awards, the Grey Cup or the Grand Prix.
Ms. Dawson admits a $30 disclosure rule may not be the answer, but says more transparency is needed about what goes on in the evenings on Parliament Hill. She says she’s been told that some industry events give door prizes to MPs.
"There’s sort of a little bit of mystery over the Parliament Buildings and they’re not too keen on publicizing what goes on in there," she said. "So I’m really just saying from the snippets that I hear, there seems to be a little bit more going on over there than you’d expect from the amount that’s reported to me."
Members of Parliament receive gifts from organizations and individuals, many of which are forfeited to Her Majesty in right of Canada. Here’s a selection of items from public statements of gifts received since June, 2009:
Stephen Harper received an electric guitar and case handcrafted by the Wild Honey Guitar Company by Erick & Lisa Hanson of Thunder Bay.
Benjamin Harper received a Gibson Robot electric guitar from Nickleback at a luncheon at 24 Sussex Dr. on April 11, 2010.
On March 20, 2010, Leo Housakos, Senator for Wellington, Que., offered Mr. Harper a bass guitar with a personalized inscription from Gene Simmons.
John Duncan received an Inuit sculpture on Aug. 18, 2010, from the Makivik Corporation.
Mr. Harper received a silver falcon statue on a silver base with red, green and blue crystals from the Prime Minister of Kuwait.
Edward Fast received a Tiffany & Co. watch from the Sultan of Brunei on Feb. 14, 2012.
Laureen Harper received a Tiffany & Co. sterling silver pendant necklace on Jan. 27 from the National Hockey League Players’ Association.
Ms. Harper received a diamond and sapphire necklace, earrings, bracelet and ring from the King of Saudi Arabia at the G20 Summit in Toronto on June 25, 2010.
Jim Flaherty was invited to attend the Mike Weir Charity Golf Classic in Oakville, Ont., on July 20, 2009.
Judy Foote received four tickets to the Juno Awards from CTV on April 18, 2010.
Ralph Goodale received two tickets to the Grey Cup in Calgary on Nov. 29, 2009, from Scotiabank.
John Baird received a 64gb Apple iPad from the government of the United Arab Emirates on Nov. 20, 2011.
Mr. Harper received a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 with his name inset with mother of pearl from the President of the Republic of Korea in March, 2012.
On May 26-27, 2011, on the occasion of the G8 Summit in Deauville, France, Ms. Harper received a Hermès beach towel and makeup bag from Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, spouse of then-French-president Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr. Flaherty received cosmetic items from Mr. Sarkozy in Cannes during a G20 meeting on Nov. 3, 2011.