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NDP MP Nathan Cullen has asked the federal Ethics Commissioner to investigate whether a lobby firm for high-tech companies that is led by a former Liberal aide broke the rules by offering access to decision makers in exchange for a $10,000 yearly fee. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
NDP MP Nathan Cullen has asked the federal Ethics Commissioner to investigate whether a lobby firm for high-tech companies that is led by a former Liberal aide broke the rules by offering access to decision makers in exchange for a $10,000 yearly fee. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Federal commissioners asked to probe Liberal-connected firm’s cash-for-access pitch Add to ...

The federal ethics and lobbying commissioners are being asked to investigate whether a lobby firm for high-tech companies that is led by a former Liberal aide broke the rules by offering access to decision makers in exchange for a $10,000 yearly fee.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen has asked the federal Ethics Commissioner to investigate, while advocacy group Democracy Watch has written to both the Ethics Commissioner and the Lobbying Commissioner.

“Canadians will certainly be suspicious that this organization was created soon after the Liberals were elected, that it is made up of many well-connected Liberal insiders and donors, and that it offers exclusive and preferential access to Liberal government agencies and senior staff of at least one cabinet minister,” Mr. Cullen wrote in his letter to the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner on Wednesday. “This relationship undoubtedly warrants further investigation.”

Related: Lobby group asked to stop offering access to Ottawa in exchange for $10,000

The complaints focus on a membership pitch circulated by the Council of Canadian Innovators, an industry group that was created in late 2015 to lobby on behalf of Canadian high-tech firms. Three of the council’s four full-time staff are former Liberal aides, either federally or in Ontario.

The council sent a letter to clean-tech firms stating that among the things their chief executives would receive in exchange for a $10,000-a-year membership fee was participation in monthly meetings with Environment Minister Catherine McKenna’s chief of staff. The pitch also promised access to “internal planning discussions regarding the federal government’s $950-million Innovation Clusters program.”

A spokesperson for Ms. McKenna said on Tuesday that the group’s pitch was “neither accurate nor appropriate” and added that the chief of staff, Marlo Raynolds, had met the group only three times since October. The council said this week that it changed the wording of the document last month so that it promises regular rather than monthly meetings with Ms. McKenna’s chief of staff.

On Wednesday, the minister's office said Mr. Raynolds has written to the lobbying commissioner as well to ask for a review of the matter. Mr. Raynolds has also written to the ethics commissioner to "clarify the record."  

The council says its request for an annual membership fee in exchange for government relations work is no different than those of other industry groups that meet regularly with public servants and political staff.

The council is led by Benjamin Bergen, who was an executive assistant to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland when she was in opposition. Mr. Bergen described himself as Ms. Freeland’s 2015 campaign manager in a 2016 version of his résumé. However, this week he said he was not the official campaign manager and was more of a co-campaign manager. He said the official campaign manager was Dana O’Born, who is now the council’s director of policy.

“The Council of Canadian Innovators always has and always will abide by all federal and provincial accountability and transparency legislation when engaging in its advocacy work,” Mr. Bergen said in a statement on Wednesday.

“In just over one year, the CEOs, who are proud Canadians, have engaged with government officials and politicians from across the political spectrum to make meaningful contributions to Canada’s economic development, health, public safety, environmental and other important areas of public policy.”

Since its formation, the council has had broad access to top public servants and political aides across the federal government.

The federal lobbyist registry shows the council has had 203 meetings with federal officials since it was formed, including 13 meetings with Global Affairs Canada, where Ms. Freeland first served as trade minister and then Foreign Affairs Minister. None of those meetings involved Ms. Freeland directly or her political staff.

The Democracy Watch letter asks the lobbying commissioner to investigate whether the interactions with Ms. Freeland’s department constitute a breach of the Lobbyist Code of Conduct. The code states that a lobbyist shall not lobby a public-office holder with whom they have a relationship that could reasonably be seen to create a sense of obligation. The code also states that lobbyists must refrain for five years from lobbying people for whom they have engaged in political activities that could create a sense of obligation.

Neither Mr. Bergen nor Ms. O’Born were registered lobbyists when they worked on Ms. Freeland’s 2015 campaign, but the council said they will not lobby the minister for five years. Democracy Watch says the five-year ban should also apply to Ms. Freeland’s department, but is asking the commissioner to make a determination on that point.

Elections Canada records show Ms. Freeland paid Mr. Bergen $1,176.26 in 2015 campaign expenses for ground transportation. The candidate also paid Ms. O’Born $79.10 for personal grooming and $33.90 for clothing.

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