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Politics Liberals urged to reveal exact number of ministers using loophole

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer rises during question period in the House of Commons, in Ottawa on Nov. 1, 2017.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Opposition parties called on the Trudeau government on Thursday to stop playing "ethics bingo" and clear up the confusion over how many cabinet ministers are using a conflict-of-interest loophole to avoid divesting or putting assets in a blind trust.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson have offered different versions of the number of cabinet ministers holding controlled assets indirectly through numbered corporations.

The Prime Minister says it is only Finance Minister Bill Morneau, while Ms. Dawson will only say "fewer than five" ministers are currently using the loophole.

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Globe editorial: Time to plug the conflict-of-interest loophole

"Am I getting warmer or colder? Is it more than one but less than five?" Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer asked Finance Minister Bill Morneau during Question Period in the House of Commons.

Even Mr. Morneau, who has faced a barrage of questions over his personal finances, appeared initially confused about whether his boss or Ms. Dawson is right.

"What I can say is that two is less than five. Those are the numbers," Mr. Morneau told MPs.

The issue has dominated Question Period since The Globe and Mail reported on Monday that the Ethics Commissioner's office says an unidentified number of cabinet ministers did not divest or set up blind trusts because of a loophole in the Conflict of Interest Act that allows their holdings to be held indirectly through a private corporation or some other mechanism.

"Liberals seem to have invented a whole new game. It is called 'ethics bingo.' How many Liberals have secret numbered companies that they have not told Canadians about?" NDP MP Nathan Cullen said. "Is it one? Yes, there is one. Is it two? Oh yes, at least two. Is it three? Tell me when I get to the right one and we can all yell 'bingo!' together."

Midway through Question Period, Mr. Morneau said only two ministers used the conflict-of-interest loophole. He also added the practice has since ended.

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"What we can say is that there is two: one member who divested all of the assets 18 months ago and another member, myself, who has divested his assets." Mr. Morneau said.

Mr. Trudeau told the Commons on Tuesday that his Finance Minister was the only one of his 30 ministers who currently uses the loophole. Mr. Morneau is putting his assets in a blind trust and pledged to donate to charity $5.3-million in profits his shares have earned since he became Finance Minister. Mr. Morneau said on Thursday he sold his one million shares in Morneau Shepell, the giant human-resources and pension-management firm that his father founded.

The government says Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould had once held shares indirectly in a company she had co-owned with her husband, but she sold them in April, 2016.

The Ethics Commissioner's office on Thursday said that the watchdog is not in conflict with Mr. Trudeau but declined to reveal names or the exact number of cabinet ministers who used the loophole.

"The [Ethics Commissioner's] office did not wish to give an exact number when asked how many cabinet ministers indirectly hold controlled assets," spokeswoman Jocelyne Brisebois said in a statement. "The office indicated fewer than five, giving a general sense of an upper limit to the number, meaning it could be one, two, three or four."

Frustrated opposition MPs raised a question of privilege in the House and asked that the Commons committee on procedural and house affairs get to the bottom of the contradictory information.

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"Canadians are wondering what is going on within the Liberal cabinet … who have been holding secret accounts in numbered companies, withholding that information from Canadians, which has put them in an obvious, from my and others' perspective, case of conflict of interest." Mr. Cullen said.

Mr. Morneau accused the opposition parties of playing games to score political points, but the Conservative Leader, Mr. Scheer, said the country needs to know if Liberal cabinet ministers are hiding assets in the same manner as the finance minister.

"All the opposition wants to know, and all Canadians want to know, is who are the ministers who are using similar loopholes, how many are there, and when did the Prime Minister know that this was going on," Mr. Scheer said.

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