The federal ethics commissioner has dismissed opposition accusations that Bill Morneau benefited from insider trading, but has yet to rule on whether the finance minister was in a conflict of interest when he introduced pension legislation.
A two-page letter from Mary Dawson to Mr. Morneau, dated Jan. 5, outlines her consideration of concerns raised by Conservative and NDP MPs in relation to the minister's decision to sell shares in Morneau Shepell Inc. in 2015.
"I am of the view that you did not benefit from insider information," Ms. Dawson wrote.
The opposition had asked Ms. Dawson to investigate whether the minister violated federal ethics rules by selling the shares ahead of a formal announcement of income-tax changes that would take effect Jan. 1, 2016. Mr. Morneau resigned as executive chair of the company shortly after he was elected as an MP in October, 2015.
However, The Globe reported in October, 2017 that the minister did not place his substantial holding of company shares in a blind trust. The revelation prompted months of opposition questions about potential conflicts of interest.
Ms. Dawson agreed with the minister that the government's plans for the tax changes were made public prior to the share sale, via a Nov. 4 announcement.
"This was well in advance of the sale of your Morneau Shepell Inc. shares on November 30, 2015, and the tabling of the December 7, 2015 Ways and Means motion on this matter," Ms. Dawson wrote.
Prior to the current Parliamentary recess, Mr. Morneau faced repeated questions from the opposition about the timing of his share sales. The minister was adamant at the time that the allegations were groundless, calling them "absolutely absurd" and threatening to sue any opposition MP who repeated the allegations outside of the House of Commons, where speech is protected from legal action under Parliamentary privilege.
Chloé Luciani-Girouard, a spokesperson for Mr. Morneau, said the minister's office is pleased with the outcome.
"As well, the minister will continue to work with the office of the ethics commissioner to ensure he is in full compliance with the rules," she said in a statement. "The minister has gone above and beyond the initial recommendations from the ethics commissioner by divesting all his family's holdings in his former company, donating upwards of $10-million to charity and setting up a blind trust."
The Jan. 5 letter also clears Mr. Morneau of any conflict of interest regarding the Bank of Canada's decision to renew a pension-management contract with Morneau Shepell.
Ms. Dawson's term as ethics commissioner expires Monday. Her successor, Mario Dion, is scheduled to begin Tuesday.
A separate examination by the office into whether Mr. Morneau was in a conflict of interest when he introduced Bill C-27, pension legislation that could have potentially benefited Morneau Shepell and the value of his company shares, is ongoing.
The legislation would allow federally regulated companies and federal Crown corporations to shift their pension plans from a traditional defined-benefit plan to a relatively new concept called a target-benefit plan, in which some of the investment risk is shifted from the employer to the employee. Morneau Shepell, which describes itself as Canada's largest provider of pension management services, has praised the legislation as a positive step.
In a recent interview with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Dawson had said she would not be completing the C-27 review before her retirement.
"Unfortunately, I'm not here long enough to finish that one, but it's under way," Ms. Dawson told The Globe, adding that it could take "quite a bit" more time to complete.
She also said she believes her successor, Mr. Dion, should continue examining any ongoing files. "If I've started them, I obviously thought they should be investigated."
During a committee appearance in December, Mr. Dion said reviewing unfinished files – such as the Morneau pension case – would be his top priority.
"Abandoning an investigation completely without reason is not something I would do," Mr. Dion told the House of Commons ethics committee.