The Prime Minister's Office is cutting off communications with officials affiliated with Navigator Ltd. while the federal watchdog of lobbying looks into the practices of the plugged-in firm, a government official said yesterday.
The specific purpose or target of the Commissioner of Lobbying's inquiries is not known, but the PMO has moved pro-actively in hopes of limiting further controversies during this heated political season.
There are close ties between Navigator officials and senior members of the Conservative government, starting at the top. Navigator chair Jaime Watt was a senior strategist in Mike Harris's Ontario government, and he is a friend of PMO chief of staff Guy Giorno, another veteran of the Harris team.
Mr. Watt was also a senior organizer for Jim Flaherty, now the federal Minister of Finance, during the 2002 Ontario PC leadership race.
Navigator's lobbying activities in Ottawa are conducted as part of a partnership with Ensight Canada. Robin Sears, who is affiliated with both companies, said he is unaware of any activity involving the Commissioner of Lobbying.
"We have no knowledge of any inquiry being made, we have no knowledge of any suggestion on the part of anybody within the government about such an enquiry," Mr. Sears said. "Until such time as somebody can put some names and faces on the claim, it strikes us as a little doubtful."
However, news of the commissioner's work has circulated within the Harper government, which came to power in 2006 by vowing to clean up Ottawa.
"I have been told that the Prime Minister's Office will not have formal or informal communications with Navigator," the government official said on condition of anonymity.
A spokeswoman for the Commissioner of Lobbying could not be reached. The Prime Minister's Office refused to comment.
Navigator is based in Toronto, while Ensight Canada has its offices in downtown Ottawa and specializes in "government relations."
There have been clashes recently between the PMO and Navigator over the firm's work for former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney at the public inquiry into his cash dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber.
Navigator also recently oversaw communications for Michael Bryant, the former Ontario minister who is facing charges of criminal negligence causing death and dangerous driving causing death in an accident involving a cyclist on Aug. 31.
The Conservatives are hoping to avoid further ethical controversies after having been criticized in recent weeks for placing their logo on display cheques used by MPs to highlight stimulus spending.
The Liberal Opposition is using increasingly aggressive tactics during Question Period, where it feels it has been hitting a nerve relying on ethical attacks.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to office in 2006 in large part on a corruption-busting agenda following the Liberal sponsorship scandal. He brought in the Accountability Act to clean up what the Conservatives called an ethical mess left by the previous government.
In particular, the Conservatives were critical of the "revolving door" between the worlds of government and lobbying in the days of the Chrétien and the Martin governments.
The Accountability Act prevents federal officials from lobbying the government for up to five years after their retirement, up from only one year under the Liberals.