(Recasts with Liberal defense of record, word on Energy East pipeline)
By Randall Palmer
MONTREAL, Oct 15 (Reuters) - Canadian election front runner Justin Trudeau defended the ethics of his Liberal team on Thursday after his campaign co-chair was forced to resign over controversial advice to an energy company on how to lobby a Liberal government.
The campaign official, Dan Gagnier, had sent an email on Monday to TransCanada Corp in his private capacity as a consultant, advising it on how to win approval for projects, including the Energy East oil pipeline.
When news of the email emerged on Wednesday, the Trudeau campaign at first said Gagnier had done nothing wrong. By evening it sent out a notice that Gagnier had resigned, but blamed Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative Party for "mean-spirited politics."
At a campaign stop in Montreal, Trudeau said Gagnier had recognized his actions were inappropriate.
"I personally hold extremely high ethical standards not just for myself but for people surrounding me, and that's why we took, within 24 hours, a decision that Mr. Gagnier accepted and chose to step down from this campaign," Trudeau said.
It was clear the Liberals were trying to limit damage from the incident rather than continuing to defend Gagnier's actions in the remaining days before the Oct. 19 election.
It had the potential to dent the momentum of the party, which has established a clear polling lead. A Nanos survey released on Thursday put the Liberals at 37.1 percent, approaching levels needed to win a majority mandate.
The center-left party, once in third place in the polls, is now more than seven points ahead of Harper's Conservatives and 13 points in front of the left-leaning New Democrats.
Trudeau said Gagnier had not advised the campaign on energy issues. Trudeau had once supported the Energy East project, to bring oil from Alberta to the east coast for refining or exporting.
He has since been ambivalent and on Thursday declined to clarify whether he would support it, saying it was not only a matter of winning government permits but also gaining permission from communities it passes through.
"It is not up to government to support one project or another, it is up for a government to set the framework within which communities can choose, or not, to support a project. Because people understand we need jobs and growth and development, but it cannot come at the cost of our health, of our environmental safety, of our long-term future," he said.
Reporting by Randall Palmer