The federal Ethics Commissioner is investigating whether David MacNaughton, former Canadian ambassador to the United States, broke conflict-of-interest rules in his subsequent work for American data-analytics company Palantir Technologies.
Mr. MacNaughton, who played a critical role in the renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement, left the diplomatic post to join Palantir, a Silicon Valley technology company, in August, 2019. He serves as the Toronto-based president of Palantir’s Canadian unit.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus, who had filed a complaint about the matter, received a letter from Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion on Thursday saying he has reason to believe that Mr. MacNaughton may have contravened two sections of the Conflict of Interest Act.
These include Section 33: “no former public office holder shall act in such a manner as to take improper advantage of his or her previous public office." And Section 35 (2): “No former reporting public office holder shall make representations whether for remuneration or not, for or on behalf of any other person or entity to any department, organization, board, commission or tribunal with which he or she had direct and significant official dealings during the period of one year immediately before his or her last day in office.”
In the letter obtained by The Globe and Mail, Mr. Dion said: “Given the information in the public domain relating to Mr. MacNaughton’s communications with the Government of Canada on behalf of Palantir Technologies, and additional information the office has obtained on the matter, I have reason to believe that a contravention of sections 33 and 35(2) may have occurred.
"As a result, I have initiated an examination under subsection 45(1), and have so informed Mr. MacNaughton.”
In an e-mailed statement to The Globe Friday, Mr. MacNaughton said: “As soon as I learned of the complaint, I reached out to the commissioner’s office. I will of course continue to engage with him and his staff.”
Mr. Angus was prompted to complain to the Ethics Commissioner after a report in media outlet The Logic that said Mr. MacNaughton was talking to Canadian officials about how Palantir could help the government address the COVID-19 pandemic.
He also cites comments from federal Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, who was asked at a Commons committee whether Mr. MacNaughton was advising the government on the pandemic. Mr. Bains said he was not aware of any formal commitment by the former envoy.
“I know that he is engaged with many, including me, in giving us solutions and ideas on how to help Canadians, so I speak to him on a regular basis," Mr. Bains told the committee, adding later: “I speak to him as a friend. He is someone who has guided me through many personal issues with my kids and my family. He’s been someone I’ve worked with, so it’s in that capacity.”
Mr. Angus said his concern is that Mr. MacNaughton, as a past co-chair of the Liberal Party of Canada’s 2015 federal election campaign, has extensive partisan ties with the governing party in Ottawa. He noted that Palantir Canada’s website talks about bringing its technology to the “most important government and commercial institutions in Canada.”
He said Mr. MacNaugton’s conversations with government merit investigation. “We do not know whether the direct commercial interests of Palantir have been discussed in those meetings," Mr. Angus said, “but Mr. MacNaughton is well placed to make the Liberal government more amenable to the business interests of Palantir in receiving government contracts or a favourable regulatory environment.”
In a recent interview with Politico, Mr. MacNaughton said he talks to people in the Prime Minister’s Office about broad public-policy issues and politics but has not tried to sell the PMO on Palantir. He said the same goes for conversations with other ministers.
“Do I talk to Nav Bains and do I talk to [Finance] Minister [Bill] Morneau and everything? Sure I do. I talk to them about what … we think is going to happen in terms of Canada-U.S. relations," he told Politico.
“I’m not going to stop talking to people about public-policy issues. I’ve been doing that all my life. I’m not going to stop now.”
Palantir builds data-mining software for clients such as banks, manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies and government agencies, including law-enforcement and intelligence services. The company was founded in 2003, in part with funding from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency; its surveillance technology has been used in counterterrorism work, and Palantir reportedly played a role in the campaign to track down Osama bin Laden.
Palantir’s software helps banks such as JPMorgan Chase & Co. scrub data from multiple sources to spot fraud, while pharmaceutical companies use its products to sift through the results of drug trials or to track disease outbreaks. The company’s biggest customers are governments – Palantir is one of the biggest suppliers to U.S. government agencies.
The Ethics Commissioner’s office declined comment. “It is not possible to comment on correspondence from Commissioner Dion to a Member of Parliament as his discussions with any regulatee, be it under the Act or Code, are confidential.”
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