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Ethics Commissioner to look into Jim Flaherty’s letter to CRTC

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty takes part in a press conference in Ottawa on Jan. 16, 2013.

SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The federal Ethics Commissioner wants to talk to Jim Flaherty about his letter to the CRTC.

After it was revealed that the Finance Minister wrote to the arm's-length broadcast regulator in support of a constituent's bid for a radio licence, the Prime Minister's Office was quick to defend Mr. Flaherty on Thursday.

But Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson – who recently warned cabinet ministers to be careful about how they use their positions when representing constituents – wants to give the issue a closer look.

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"Commissioner Dawson is aware of the issue and is following up with Minister Flaherty's office. We cannot comment further at this time," a spokesperson said.

The Canadian Press reported on Thursday that Mr. Flaherty wrote a letter last year in support of Durham Radio Inc.'s bid to obtain a licence for an open spot at 88.1 FM on the Toronto dial. The licence was awarded in September to Barrie's Rock 95 Broadcasting Ltd., which will focus on independent music.

Mr. Flaherty's March 30, 2012, letter states: "As the MP for Whitby-Oshawa, I support their proposal and their application." Underneath Mr. Flaherty's signature, the letter states: "The Honourable Jim Flaherty, P.C., M.P. Minister of Finance" and "Minister responsible for the Greater Toronto Area."

A 2010 report on the Prime Minister's website called "Accountable Government: A Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State" notes that "ministers must not intervene, or appear to intervene, with tribunals on any matter requiring a decision in their quasi-judicial capacity, except as permitted by statute."

Carl Vallée, a spokesman for the PMO, said the Ethics Commissioner says that ministers should assist their constituents in the same way as any other MP would.

"The Minister of Finance plays no role and has no input into the deliberations or decisions of the CRTC," Mr. Vallée wrote in an e-mail. Mr. Flaherty also released a statement defending his decision.

"I will continue to be a strong advocate for the people and community I represent," he said. "It is my job."

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The NDP pointed out that when Liberal heritage minister Michel Dupuy sent a similar letter to the CRTC in 1994, the Reform Party demanded his resignation. Liberal defence minister David Collenette resigned from cabinet in 1996 for signing a letter to a quasi-judicial body – the Immigration and Refugee Board – on behalf of a constituent.

"It looks like the rules and the precedents would require him to step down, but the Harper government, they follow different rules," NDP MP Andrew Cash said. "He's not a regular MP. He's not even a regular cabinet minister. He's the Minister of Finance. He's No. 2 in the government."

Mr. Cash pointed to a July, 2012, report from the Ethics Commissioner that expressed concern that Tony Clement, when he was minister of health in 2008, used his ministerial title to promote a constituent's work. The commissioner said that, when helping constituents, cabinet members should not use their positions as ministers in a way that would give them "greater assistance" than they would otherwise receive.

This is not the first time Conservatives have been on the defensive over last year's competition for a radio spot.

The Globe and Mail reported in July that Paul Calandra, the Conservative MP for Oak Ridges-Markham, raised thousands of dollars in political contributions from people involved with companies bidding for the licence.

After The Globe raised the matter with Mr. Calandra, the MP gave some of the money back. He also argued that he never lobbied the CRTC on behalf of the companies tied to the political donations.

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Ms. Dawson decided not to investigate whether the MP breached the Conflict of Interest Act. She also said she could not rule on whether Mr. Calandra breached the Prime Minister's "Accountable Government" guide, because her office does not enforce those rules, the Prime Minister does.

The PMO also decided not to take action in the case of Mr. Calandra.

"The CRTC regulatory process is completely independent; politicians are not involved in any way," PMO spokesperson Julie Vaux stated at the time.

The PMO said on Thursday it stands by its position that politicians are not involved in CRTC decisions.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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