The Senate ethics watchdog is investigating an all-expenses-paid junket to China by three Conservative senators and their spouses to determine whether it should have been declared as a gift or sponsored travel.
Chinese media have reported that Senator Victor Oh and two Senate colleagues – Don Plett and Leo Housakos – travelled to China in April, 2017, at the invitation of a Beijing-based wealth management firm that recently opened up an office in Vancouver.
The two-week trip to Beijing and Fujian province was not disclosed to the Senate Ethics Office as either sponsored travel or a gift. Independent Senator André Pratte asked for an investigation last week after The Globe and Mail reported on the undisclosed travel to China.
At first, Mr. Housakos's office said it was sponsored travel, partly paid for by China and a trade group based in Canada, and that a staffer had forgotten to inform the ethics office as required under Senate rules. Mr. Housakos then called The Globe in late November to say my "understanding by and large is [the trip] was covered by two Canadian-Chinese associations," but he could not remember their names.
But Mr. Oh later told The Globe and the Senate Ethics Office that he did not believe the senators had to declare the trip because his "family" picked up the tab for airline tickets, hotels, meals and transportation.
The purpose of the trip, he said, was to visit his ancestral home in Fujian province.
"It was my family who covered all the costs of this trip," Mr. Oh wrote to Mr. Pratte and other colleagues in a Dec. 1 e-mail, obtained by The Globe. "As such, I did not believe it needed to be filed as sponsored travel."
Mr. Oh, a Toronto businessman named to the upper chamber by Stephen Harper, did not mention in the e-mail that he was in China at the invitation of Pantheon Asset, a Chinese firm whose website says it is involved in the management of "high-net-worth families" seeking a safe place to put their money.
"Along with spending time with family, we also paid visits out of courtesy to officials and representatives of the local community and attended cultural activities," Mr. Oh wrote.
An article on the Chinese website Hot China News Centre, however, said the three senators were "invited" to China to "engage in comprehensive exchanges" with members of Pantheon Asset in Beijing and Fujian province. The website said the senators were accompanied by more than 20 people including Canadian-Fujianese business people.
The article did not say if Pantheon paid any of the costs. The Globe made repeated calls to Pantheon's office in Beijing but the phone line was always busy.
"The trip in April was paid for by my family and not the company you mentioned," Mr. Oh said in a statement to The Globe. "It is is extremely concerning that you are putting my reputation and integrity into question based on accounts given by less than reliable sources."
Mr. Housakos said in an interview on Tuesday he never got details of who paid for the trip to China, but Mr. Oh later "explained to me that my end of the trip was paid for by a family member [because] he was returning to his ancestral home."
Later, he called back The Globe to say Pantheon "did not invite me to China. I can tell you they didn't pay for [the trip] and I can tell you they invited me to have dinner. That's it and all."
Mr. Plett said he has since sent all information about the trip, including the list of people who accompanied the senators, to the ethics office.
In his Dec. 1 e-mail, Mr. Oh said he "at all times acted in good faith" and added he had never "conducted any personal business in China or here in Canada since my appointment to the Red Chamber in 2013."
Hot China News referred to Mr. Oh as "China-Canada's People's Ambassdor" and noted that Pantheon set up a meeting with the senators and business delegation with Xiamen Chamber of Commerce and Quanzhou Federation of Industry and Commerce. It said the company also hosted a banquet for the senators in Beijing and they attended the Peking opera accompanied by Pantheon partner Ma Yi.
Mr. Oh has also declined to explain three other trips that he took to China that were not publicly declared to the Senate Ethics Office but denied they were paid by China.
"I want to make it perfectly clear that none of the trips to China that you have asked about have been paid for by the Chinese government or one of its entities," he said in an e-mail to The Globe.
Mr. Oh visited China in early September, 2017, visiting Liaoning province and meeting Sept. 7 with Wang Zhaoxia, chair of the Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese Liaoning Province, according to reports in the mainland China press.
This trip was never registered as sponsored by a third party or as part of the activities of the Canada-China Legislative Association, which is funded by Parliament.
When asked, Mr. Oh's office said he was already in China as part of a taxpayer-funded trip by the Canada-China Legislative Association. That ended in late August. His office said Mr. Oh stayed in China and conducted his own travel, which they say he paid for out of this own pocket before flying back to Canada on Sept. 10.
Chinese media also reported on a trip Mr. Oh made to Jiangsu Province in late December, 2016. They say he was invited to visit China by Qiaofeng Chen, president of a Canada-China lobby group, the Canada Suzhou General Chamber of Commerce, and president of Kent International Education. On Dec. 29, Chinese media report he was warmly welcomed by dignitaries with the provincial people's congress.
Mr. Oh is a frequent traveller to China and prominent at banquets and events in Canada where Chinese diplomats and party bigwigs are invited guests.
Mr. Oh and Senator Yuen Pau Woo, the new leader of the largest block of Independent senators, have spoken out against a motion from Conservative Senator Thanh Hai Ngo that calls on Canada to oppose China's aggressive moves in the disputed South China Sea.