OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s industry minister, found guilty of an ethics violation last week, is being formally investigated for possible wrongdoing in a second case and faces opposition allegations of inappropriate behavior in a third.
Christian Paradis, who handles some of the government’s most sensitive files, may be turning into a political problem for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose Conservatives came to power in early 2006 promising more accountability in government.
Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson said on Tuesday she was looking into allegations that Paradis - also the cabinet minister responsible for Quebec affairs - tried to move a government office into a building owned by an associate of his family in Quebec.
“There is an opened investigation on that,” she told the House of Commons ethics committee when asked about the case.
Last Thursday, Dawson found Paradis had 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.
Hours before Dawson spoke on Tuesday, CTV News reported that Paradis had stayed at the exclusive hunting lodge of businessman Marcel Aubut in 2009. Aubut was lobbying the federal government at the time to help fund a C$400 million ($400 million) hockey arena in Quebec City.
“I wonder if we’re going to need a whole special investigations unit just to keep Mr. Paradis on the straight and narrow,” said Charlie Angus of the opposition New Democrats.
Paradis is in charge of deciding whether to allow increased foreign investment in big telecommunications companies and currently is weighing whether to let Swiss-based Glencore International Ltd buy Viterra Corp, Canada’s biggest grain handler, for C$6.1 billion.
The report of Paradis’s stay at Aubut’s lodge prompted Harper to defend him for the second time in a week.
“This was a private trip, and there is no link I‘m aware of to any government business,” Harper told a news conference in South Korea, where he was attending a summit on nuclear security.
Paradis said he did go on a one-day hunting trip with Aubut, but that Aubut did not lobby him on the hockey arena that day or before or afterwards. The 38-year-old minister insisted that he made his own way to the camp and covered his own expenses.
The Liberals demanded that Dawson investigate the Aubut link. “There seems to be a disturbing pattern of cronyism and abuse of office emerging from Stephen Harper’s minister of industry,” said legislator Scott Andrews.
New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair said Paradis’s attempt to move the government office, which is now being investigated by Dawson, smacked of “1950s behavior”.
Harper spokesman Carl Vallee defended Paradis’s action. Vallee said that as a member of Parliament, Paradis asked that Thetford Mines - in the heart of his electoral district - “be considered on an equal basis with all other centers” for the government office.
As for the Quebec City arena file, Quebec authorities announced on Sunday that construction of the Quebec City arena would begin, with provincial and municipal subsidies - but no federal funds.
Aubut used to head the Quebec Nordiques, a National Hockey League team that was sold in 1995 and became the Colorado Avalanche.
He now heads the Canadian Olympic Committee. Committee spokesman Dimitri Soudas - formerly Harper’s communications director - said Paradis’s visit to the Aubut lodge “was strictly personal”.
One of the problems that Harper faces is that even if he wanted to dismiss Paradis, the Conservatives have limited bench strength in Quebec, the country’s second most populous province. They have only five Quebec members of Parliament, and four of them are already in cabinet.
Editing by Peter Galloway