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Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland answers a question during question period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Oct. 29, 2020.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s policy director, Leslie Church, has agreed to an ethics screen to manage potential conflicts of interest involving Sheamus Murphy, her lobbyist husband, who regularly meets with senior federal officials on behalf of corporate clients.

Mr. Murphy is registered to lobby the Liberal government in relation to several major sectors with active policy files, including broadcasting, energy and pharmaceutical companies that are working on a COVID-19 vaccine. He is a partner with the lobbying firm Counsel Public Affairs.

The position of policy director to the Finance Minister involves working on federal budgets and fiscal updates, co-ordinating with the Prime Minister’s Office and meeting regularly with lobbyists who seek federal funds or changes to government policy.

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Opposition MPs say they question why a screen is being applied only now, even though Ms. Church has worked for Liberal cabinet ministers since 2015.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Freeland said in a statement that Ms. Church has been in regular contact with the Ethics Commissioner’s office since 2015 and has followed its advice.

In Nov. 6 memo to assistant deputy ministers in the department, Finance Canada deputy minister Paul Rochon said any e-mail or document sent to the minister’s office that “relates, or contains any reference, to Counsel Public Affairs or Mr. Murphy” should be marked: “Not to be seen by or discussed with Leslie Church.” The screen will be administered by Christina Rettig, a senior adviser in the minister’s office.

Conflict-of-interest screens such as this are aimed at preventing violations of the Conflict of Interest Act, which was adopted to minimize conflicts between a public office holder’s public duties and private interests, including those of their friends and relatives. The act states that a private interest does not include a matter "of general application” or one that affects the public office holder as a member of a broad class of persons. The interpretation of that definition has long been debated.

Based on the general application rule, the minister’s office says the screen will not prevent Ms. Church from being involved in discussions about issues broadly related to economic sectors that overlap with industries in which Mr. Murphy is involved, as long as the conversations are not related to the lobbying activity of Mr. Murphy or his firm.

Counsel Public Affairs has more than 60 active registrations to lobby the federal government, with clients that include the Air Canada Pilots Association; Husky Oil Operations Ltd. and pharmaceutical firms such as Bayer, Emergent BioSolutions Canada Inc., GlaxoSmithKline and Takeda.

Before joining the Finance Minister’s Office on Oct. 13, Ms. Church was chief of staff to Minister of Public Services and Procurement Anita Anand.

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Ms. Anand is responsible for billions of dollars in emergency COVID-19 purchases such as personal protective equipment, and signing agreements with potential vaccine manufacturers. The minister announced a deal with Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline in September for up to 72 million doses of their COVID-19 vaccine candidate.

Stephanie O’Brien, Ms. Church’s successor as chief of staff to the procurement minister, also has a spouse who works for a lobbying firm. Jonathan Ballingall is research lead with Capital Hill Group, but is not a registered lobbyist. This month, Ms. O’Brien agreed to an ethics screen to prevent conflicts related to Capital Hill Group.

Four members of cabinet and nine ministerial staff have formal screens, including Ms. O’Brien and Ms. Church. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has one to prevent his involvement on matters related to the Aga Khan, a family friend, and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc has a screen related to his friend James Irving, president and chief executive officer of J.D. Irving Ltd.

Other staff have voluntary screens that are not in the ethics commissioner’s database. Katie Telford, chief of staff to the Prime Minister, has a voluntary screen because her husband, Rob Silver, has a senior role at a mortgage finance company. The lobbying commissioner is reviewing Mr. Silver’s interactions with the government, but the ethics commissioner recently dismissed a related Conservative complaint. Duff Conacher, co-ordinator of the advocacy group Democracy Watch, calls ethics screens “smoke screens” that lack public reporting on how they are enforced. He said he’s considering a legal challenge of the approach.

Screens related to a lobbying firm cover a broad area of policy files and potential conflicts.

Ms. Church is a lawyer and veteran senior Liberal staffer. She was head of communications and public affairs at Google Canada for more than three years before joining the Liberal government in December, 2015, as chief of staff to then-Canadian Heritage minister Mélanie Joly. Opposition MPs raised ethics concerns in 2017 after Ms. Church met several times with lobbyists from Google while at Canadian Heritage.

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Conservative MP and ethics critic Michael Barrett said it is “concerning” that an ethics screen for Ms. Church is only being adopted now.

“Canadians need to have confidence that the decision makers and the key advisers in the highest offices in this country avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest,” he said.

NDP MP and ethics critic Charlie Angus said Ms. Church’s past with Google should have merited an ethics screen in 2015.

“Again and again, the Liberals' silence on the importance of these ethical barriers between the government and well-connected insiders is deafening," he said.

The Conflict of Interest Act also requires public office holders to make a public declaration through the ethics commissioner when they recuse themselves from a discussion to avoid a conflict. Ms. Church has made no such declarations.

Ms. Freeland’s press secretary, Katherine Cuplinskas, said in a statement that the commissioner had previously said a screen was not necessary. However, that advice changed on Sept. 4.

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Ms. Cuplinskas said Ms. Church established a voluntary screen in her previous position and was not part of negotiations or discussions on the Sanofi/GlaxoSmithKline vaccine.

“Ms. Church has always followed all the rules and advice of the Office of the Ethics Commissioner and takes very seriously the responsibilities that come with being a public office holder," she said.

Mr. Murphy’s lobbyist registry disclosure says his work for GlaxoSmithKline involves discussions of Canada’s national vaccine strategy, and references “opportunities to help with the COVID-19 pandemic” but does not specifically mention the company’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate.

In an e-mailed statement, Mr. Murphy said neither he nor his Counsel Public Affairs colleagues were engaged to provide advice or lobbying with respect to potential COVID-19 vaccines on behalf of clients, including GlaxoSmithKline. Mr. Murphy, who was communications manager of the Liberal Research Bureau from 2009 to 2011, said he has always sought to “carefully follow” the guidance of the Lobbying Commissioner. He said he did not lobby Ms. Church’s previous department and has deregistered from lobbying Finance Canada.

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