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Former ambassador to U.S. broke conflict of interest law: commissioner

Thursday, September 17, 2020 @ 5:12 PM | By Terry Davidson

Canada’s ethics czar has found Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s former ambassador to the U.S. to have broken conflict of interest law by taking “improper advantage” of his previous position to lobby government officials as a private sector executive.

On Sept. 16, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion published an order detailing communications this past spring between David MacNaughton and nine government officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains and Leslie Church, chief of staff to Canada’s procurement minister.  

The communications took place between March 2 and May 1.  

The order notes that MacNaughton was U.S. ambassador from Jan. 15, 2016, to Aug. 22, 2019, and named president of Palantir Technologies Canada on Sept. 4, 2019.

MacNaughton broke s. 33 of the Conflict of Interest Act, which “prohibits former public office holders from acting in such a manner as to take improper advantage of their previous” position, wrote Dion.

The order states that MacNaughton, in accordance with s. 37 of the Act, had reported that he “had communicated with or arranged multiple meetings with several public office holders for the purpose of offering pro bono assistance on behalf of Palantir in respect of the Government of Canada’s response to the COVID19 pandemic” and that he “has acknowledged, with the benefit of hindsight, that these communications and meetings, to the extent they could have furthered the interests of Palantir, were contrary” to the rules.

However, it is quick to note that none of this resulted in any kind of contract being awarded to the company.

The order goes on to list the communications, a few of which are detailed below:

Between March 5 and March 12, MacNaughton had discussions with Freeland and “mentioned what Palantir was doing to help other governments on a pro bono basis” with the COVID-19 health crisis.

On March 22, MacNaughton contacted Bains to arrange “a meeting between individuals at Palantir and Public Service and Procurement Canada in connection with Palantir’s offer of pro bono services.”

And on April 3, MacNaughton communicated with another government official to “discuss making Palantir software available to the government on a pro bono basis and assisting with COVID-19-related supply chain issues.”

Dion ordered the nine who communicated with MacNaughton to have no “official dealings” with him for one year.

These revelations come after a summer in which the ruling Liberals were pounded with controversy with Trudeau and former finance minister Bill Morneau each coming under conflict of interest investigations for failing to recuse themselves from a cabinet decision to award a student grants contract to WE Charity — even though both men had family members who had benefited financially from the organization.

(Trudeau’s mother, brother and wife had been paid to speak at WE events; Morneau’s daughter worked in the charity’s travel department.)

A short time later, Morneau found himself at the centre of yet another WE-related controversy when it was revealed to the House of Commons finance committee that he had just repaid WE Charity $41,366 in travel-related expenses for trips his family had taken with the organization to Kenya and Ecuador.

On Aug. 17, Morneau resigned.

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