OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Industry Minister Christian Paradis, who must approve all major foreign takeover bids and also runs the sensitive telecommunications file, broke conflict-of-interest rules by doing a favor for an ex-colleague, Canada’s ethics watchdog said on Thursday.
The decision is an embarrassment for the Conservative government, which came to power in early 2006 promising to boost accountability in Ottawa, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood by Paradis.
“I have reviewed the findings of the report and it’s clear to me the minister did not act with ill intentions nor did substantial harm of any kind occur,” he told a news conference in Bangkok on Friday during an official visit to Thailand.
“The appropriate thing in this case is for the minister to learn and act with greater caution in the future,” he said.
Paradis, the first Conservative minister to have been formally investigated for breaking ethics rules, issued a statement in which he made no mention of resigning although the main opposition party said the announcement put him in a difficult position.
Harper has often stood by ministers who land in trouble.
Paradis, who last week announced rules for foreign investment in the telecommunications sector, now has to decide whether to approve Glencore International’s C$6.1 billion ($6.1 billion) takeover bid for Canadian grain handler Viterra.
Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson said after an investigation that when Paradis was public works minister in 2009, he violated the Conflict of Interest Act by telling bureaucrats to set up a meeting with a former Conservative legislator who wanted to do business with Ottawa.
“Although I found that Mr Paradis contravened the Conflict of Interest Act, I believe his inclination to direct that a meeting for his former caucus colleague be arranged is easy to understand: it is natural to want to help someone one knows,” Dawson said in a statement.
“However, I believe that facilitating access to decision-makers or those who may influence them is captured by the act’s prohibition against providing preferential treatment. Ministers are in a position of power and have a special responsibility to ensure that that power is exercised fairly,” Dawson added.
The former Conservative legislator did not win a government contract. In his statement, Paradis said he accepted Dawson’s conclusions and noted that he had never tried to influence the decisions of public servants.
“In the future, I will take further precautions when approached by Canadians seeking more information about the services and programs provided by their government,” he said.
The main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) said the ruling would be a distraction for Paradis at a time when he must focus on the Glencore bid, which was announced this week.
“It’s really disappointing and we feel that ... Mr Harper will definitely have to make some tough decisions, the reason being that Minister Paradis is the one in charge of some important files,” said NDP industry affairs spokesman Guy Caron.
In 2010, a senior aide to Paradis resigned after it emerged he had improperly interfered in the release of documents to the media under access to information laws. The incident took place when Paradis was public works minister.
Paradis served as public works minister from June 2008 to January 2010, when he moved to the natural resources portfolio. He became industry minister in May 2011.
Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre in Bangkok; Editing by Peter Galloway and Robert Birsel