Liberal Senator Mac Harb, the focus of an RCMP breach-of-trust investigation, has denied using his position in public office to influence the Bangladeshi government on behalf of a Calgary oil and gas company, Niko Resources.
The long-time Ottawa politician issued a statement on the weekend saying he has never used his Senate post "for personal gain," following a Globe and Mail report that detailed how the RCMP has alleged Mr. Harb improperly used his seat in the Senate to lobby Bangladeshi ministers on behalf of Niko in a dispute over natural gas.
"As a city councillor, a member of Parliament and as a senator, I have always put the public interest first. This investigation has therefore caused me grave concern and I have co-operated fully with the authorities," Mr. Harb, who was paid $65,000 by Niko, said in his statement. "I am confident that there will be no finding of wrongdoing."
RCMP Corporal Kevin Duggan alleged in a sworn affidavit that Mr. Harb travelled to Bangladesh four times using a special passport reserved for MPs, senators and retired ambassadors to help steer Niko out of a crisis. In 2005, one of Niko's drilling sites exploded, forcing the evacuation of a nearby village and prompting complaints of water contamination. As a result, the Bangladeshi government refused to pay for millions of dollars of gas Niko had already supplied to the state.
The RCMP, which filed the affidavit at Alberta's Court of Queen's Bench in order to access banking records, has alleged Mr. Harb was essentially trading on his clout as a senator, and that he was representing "the interests of a private corporation, contrary to the bona fide interests of the Canadian public."
Case law, as well as experts in parliamentary procedure, suggest that the outcome of the probe will likely rest on how Mr. Harb represented himself during his trips. For instance, in April of 2006, when he walked into the home of then Bangladeshi foreign affairs minister Morshed Khan, did he present himself as a Canadian senator or an employee of Niko? The Criminal Code of Canada dictates that for a public official to be in breach of trust, they must be acting "in connection with the duties of his or her office."
"Did he offer the fact that he was a senator as a reason for getting this commission? That's the sort of question," said CES (Ned) Franks, a professor emeritus in political studies at Queen's University.
Ethics rules allow for senators to accept outside employment. Many work for law firms, or sit as directors on the boards of major corporations. But even if Mr. Harb insists he was acting purely as a consultant for Niko, there's no question how he would have been perceived by the Bangladeshi government, a former diplomat told RCMP investigators.
"The perception would be that [he]would speak for the government of Canada, clearly," a former high commissioner to Bangladesh, whose name was redacted from the court documents, told the Mounties.
MP Charlie Angus, a New Democrat, said the probe of Mr. Harb highlights how loose the guidelines are for senators, and how unrealistic it is to expect them to straddle two worlds. Even if they don't intend to influence people with their title, the mere label of senator "opens doors," he said.
"Either they're representing the public, or they're representing private interests. You can't have it both ways," Mr. Angus said.
Mr. Harb has not been charged with a crime. But if the probe leads to charges, it could have serious implications for the Senate, said Duff Conacher, a board member at the anti-corruption group Democracy Watch. Senators have long relied on their ethics guidelines to allow them to seek work outside their $130,000-per-year jobs. Mr. Conacher said that if the Mounties charge Mr. Harb, it might send a message to senators that "it doesn't matter what your ethics code says - it's illegal."
"That would be a great step forward for ethical government," he said.