Four top officials in the Prime Minister's Office have recused themselves from the selection of Canada's next ethics commissioner because they are defending the Prime Minister against allegations that his family holiday to a private island in the Bahamas broke conflict rules.
Justin Trudeau announced last May that he would not be involved in selecting a replacement for Mary Dawson, who has been the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner since 2007. Mr. Trudeau explained at the time that his decision to transfer his duties in this matter to House Leader Bardish Chagger was related to the continuing investigation into his Bahamas trip by Ms. Dawson.
As the federal government looks for a new ethics commissioner, the PMO told The Globe and Mail that four other senior federal officials have recused themselves from the process: chief of staff Katie Telford, principal secretary Gerald Butts, senior adviser and lawyer Mathieu Bouchard, and director of issues management Ryan Dunn.
The four are participating in the defence of Mr. Trudeau, who has been under fire in the House for the trip to the Aga Khan's private island that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in security and undermined his reputation as a staunch defender of the middle class.
"A screen was applied to a small group of employees at PMO who are responsible for preparing materials related to the Commissioner's investigation," said PMO spokesman Cameron Ahmad.
Ms. Dawson's term, which has already been extended twice, expires in January. The new appointee will have to be approved by Parliament, which means the government must act quickly to meet the deadline.
The selection of the next ethics commissioner will be a test of the Liberal government's ability to find cross-partisan consensus for the delicate position that requires legal expertise as well as independence from all parties. The four PMO officials who are removed from the process include the closest and longest-standing advisers to Mr. Trudeau, namely Ms. Telford and Mr. Butts, leaving the nomination in the hands of more junior government officials.
"The government put in place a new appointment process that is open and transparent and which supports a merit-based selection of the next Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner," said Mark Kennedy, a spokesman for Ms. Chagger. "That comprehensive process remains in place and work is under way to identify the best candidate."
One of the most important tasks awaiting the next commissioner will be taking over the complex examination of Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who sponsored pension-reform legislation while he still held shares, through a private corporation, in the human-resources firm that he had previously run.
The minister's office says he did not need to seek permission from Ms. Dawson, because there was an "ethical screen" by which Mr. Morneau's chief of staff ensured he was not informed of certain topics, to make sure that he did not run afoul of conflict-of-interest rules. Mr. Morneau has since sold his remaining shares in Morneau-Shepell.
Mr. Morneau has always insisted that he followed the advice of Ms. Dawson after he left the world of business and became finance minister in 2015. "My view is that the conflict-of-interest screen that has been in place for the last two years as recommended by the ethics commissioner has worked," Mr. Morneau said last month.
The Ethics Commissioner is investigating Mr. Trudeau for a possible breach of the Conflict of Interest Act for not seeking her approval before he used a private helicopter owned by the Aga Khan to fly from Nassau in the Bahamas to the private island for a Christmas vacation in 2016.
Mr. Trudeau's own Open and Accountable Government rules state that "ministers and parliamentary secretaries must not accept sponsored travel … this includes all travel, non-commercial, chartered or private aircraft for any purpose except in exceptional circumstances" without the approval of the ethics commissioner.
The Prime Minister and his family flew to Nassau aboard a government Challenger Jet in late December. He was joined on the vacation by Newfoundland Liberal MP Seamus O'Regan and his husband as well as Liberal Party president Anna Gainey and her husband.
Mr. Trudeau has admitted he did not seek Ms. Dawson's approval but said that he believes he had not done anything unethical. He argued that the only way to get to the Aga Khan's island was to use his personal helicopter.