The federal Ethics Commissioner has cleared Bill Morneau of any wrongdoing in accepting a complimentary trip with the WE organization while he was finance minister and only fully repaying the expenses years later.
Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion notified Mr. Morneau on Wednesday that he has dismissed accusations that the former Liberal MP broke the rules governing the acceptance of gifts when he and his family only partly covered the costs of two trips with WE in 2017.
“I accept that you genuinely believed you had paid for the entire cost of both trips,” Mr. Dion said in a letter to Mr. Morneau that was obtained by The Globe and Mail.
The opposition had accused Mr. Morneau of accepting a gift that according to the Conflict of Interest Act “might reasonably be seen to have been given to influence the public office holder in the exercise of an official power, duty or function.”
In June, the federal government awarded WE Charity a contract to administer the new Canada Student Service Grant. The arrangement was cancelled within a week amid conflict of interest allegations centred on the close ties Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family had to the organization. However the controversy continued to grow over the summer after it was revealed that both the Prime Minister and Mr. Morneau had family members who were paid by the organization.
WE is made up of the WE Charity and its for-profit ME to WE, and is affiliated with several other entities. In September the charity announced it would close its Canadian operations and that once wound down, its founders Marc and Craig Kielburger would also leave the group.
During the height of the WE controversy, Mr. Morneau disclosed to the House of Commons finance committee that he had only just reimbursed WE for the accommodation costs of the trips. On July 22, he told the committee he paid WE $41,366 for outstanding costs for his wife and daughter’s trip to Kenya and the trip he took with his family to Ecuador. Both trips were made at the invitation from WE to observe its overseas programs. He told the committee he had previously paid $52,000 for the trips and believed that covered their total cost.
In July, WE said it invited Mr. Morneau and his wife, Nancy McCain, to visit the operations “because they are well-known philanthropists.” Last week WE Charity released a letter saying it had been more interested in Ms. McCain, who is a member of the billionaire family that founded McCain Foods Ltd.
A footnote in the letter said “an invoice was not issued at the time because this trip was in good faith that the trip would result in future financial support from the McCain family.”
When he made the disclosure to the finance committee, Mr. Morneau already stood accused of breaking the federal ethics law over his failure to recuse himself from the cabinet decision to award WE Charity the contract to administer the $543.5-million Canada Student Service Grant. One of Mr. Morneau’s daughters worked at the charity when cabinet approved the deal with WE.
The new information ignited accusations from the opposition that Mr. Morneau had broken several more sections of the federal ethics law. Mr. Dion, who was already investigating Mr. Morneau’s involvement in awarding the contract, expanded the scope of his review.
The Commissioner said Mr. Morneau provided evidence that corroborated his belief that he had already paid the full costs of the trips. In his letter, Mr. Dion also said Mr. Morneau paid ME to WE. The organization had previously said the costs were incurred by its charity.
“Once you became aware of a discrepancy in the costs, you immediately took the appropriate corrective measures,” Mr. Dion wrote. “Because you reimbursed the full amount of these costs, I am of the view that you did not accept a gift from WE Charity.”
In a statement from WE Charity, Craig Kielburger said the organization is pleased with the Commissioner’s finding. “We have always maintained that these trips were done in good faith and welcome this important clarification of the facts," he said.
Mr. Dion is still investigating whether Mr. Morneau and Mr. Trudeau were in a conflict of interest when they took part in cabinet’s approval of the contract with WE Charity.
In a statement on Twitter, Mr. Dion’s office said he is “prohibited by law from commenting publicly or providing additional information on ongoing examinations.”
Mr. Morneau resigned from cabinet and as a Liberal MP on Aug. 17.
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