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On-loan executives not unheard of in government, ethics chief says

Nigel Wright is to become Mr. Harper’s new chief of staff after Christmas. The Bay Street dealmaker, who is a managing director of buyout specialist Onex Corp., worked in former primer minister Brian Mulroney’s office as a speech writer and policy adviser.

Tibor Kolley/Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

There's no problem with business executives temporarily serving in the federal government as long as the proper checks and balances are in place, the Commons ethics watchdog said Tuesday.

Nigel Wright, presently of Onex Corp., will join the Prime Minister's Office as Stephen Harper's chief of staff later this fall. He's been in talks with Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson about his business activities and investments.

Ms. Dawson outlined to a Commons committee on Tuesday the various measures that would be taken to ensure Wright is not placed in a conflict of interest. She said it's rare, but not unheard-of, for executives on hiatus to serve in government.

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"It's good to attract people who are competent into government or into related activities," Ms. Dawson told reporters later. "It's not a problem, as long as the circumstances are dealt with."

Reports say Mr. Wright will return to his position at the private equity investment company after 18 months. A spokesman for Mr. Harper confirmed Tuesday that Mr. Wright is on a leave of absence, but said no specific date has been set for his return to the private sector.

The opposition parties complain Mr. Wright has too many potential conflicts through his business activities.

Onex is involved in many sectors, including health care and aerospace. Public filings also show that Mr. Wright is a major shareholder in companies that range from Cineplex Galaxy to Indigo Books and Music.

"Are we to believe that Mr. Wright, the Prime Minister's temporary chief of staff, on loan from Onex, will have no dealings with any file related to that company, the largest private-sector employer in the country?" Liberal MP Siobhan Coady said.

"If the government is so sure there is nothing of concern and nothing to hide, why does it not release the full details?"

Ms. Dawson explained that her office would carefully go through any public office holder's private sector activities, and work out a so-called conflict-of-interest screen. The arrangement would automatically shield a person from hearing about any potentially problematic files, so there wouldn't even be the need to recuse themselves from a discussion.

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Mr. Wright's various declarations will be put into a summary and made public. Ms. Dawson said that she is increasingly inclined to put more details into the summary where there is more public interest.

She noted that a provision in the Conflict of Interest Act governs dealings with the private sector after someone has left public office.

"In those kind of cases, we would be particularly vigilant to assist that person to find mechanisms, such as conflict-of-interest screens, to avoid dealing with someone they wanted to work with afterward," she said.

Government House Leader John Baird criticized the opposition for their attack on Mr. Wright's new job, pointing out well-known business people who held office in the last Liberal government.

"I suppose if the Liberal Party had their way that they would want to discourage talented people from outside of government from coming to Ottawa to contribute," Mr. Baird said during Question Period.

"Thank goodness this was not the case, or we never would have had a Paul Martin or Belinda Stronach."

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