OTTAWA – The federal ethics commissioner says Finance Minister Jim Flaherty broke the rules by supporting the radio licence application of a company in his riding.
Mary Dawson has ordered Flaherty to refrain from writing such letters without first seeking permission from her office.
Flaherty and the Prime Minister’s Office had argued that the veteran cabinet member was merely helping a firm in his riding, as any MP should, by sending the letter of support for Durham Radio Inc. to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
In her order made public Friday, Dawson said Flaherty violated the Conflict of Interest Act as well as federal accountability guidelines for ministers.
“It is improper for you, as Minister of Finance and Minister responsible for the Greater Toronto Area, to have written a letter of support on behalf of a constituent to an administrative tribunal in relation to its decision making,” Dawson wrote in the order.
“I therefore order you to refrain from writing any similar letters in the future without seeking approval from my Office.”
Section nine of the Conflict of Interest Act prohibits ministers from using their position to try to sway decision-making when doing so would improperly advance another person’s private interests.
Guidelines issued by the Prime Minister’s Office say cabinet members should not intervene in licence decisions of tribunals such as the CRTC, the federal broadcast regulator.
In his March 2012 letter to the CRTC, Flaherty praised Durham Radio’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to obtain a licence to operate a new FM station for the Toronto area.
The broadcaster, based in Flaherty’s Whitby-Oshawa riding, hoped to launch an easy-listening outlet — one of several applicants last year for the coveted spot on the FM dial.
“Durham Radio has a strong track record for providing excellent service for their listeners and this puts them in a solid position to offer this new service,” Flaherty wrote in the letter.
“As the MP for Whitby-Oshawa, I support their proposal and their application.”
In a statement this week to The Canadian Press, which recently discovered the letter, Flaherty said he would “continue to be a strong advocate for the people and community I represent. It is my job.”
However, Flaherty’s signature on the letter noted that he is not just an MP but also finance minister and minister for the Greater Toronto Area.
The CRTC, which administers broadcasting and telecommunications, is among the federal agencies known as quasi-judicial tribunals — court-like bodies that make decisions at arm’s length from the government.
Federal rules on ministerial responsibility, including interaction with such administrative bodies, are set out in Accountable Government: A Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State.
The rules say decisions made by administrative tribunals often concern individual rights or interests, are technical in nature or are “considered sensitive and vulnerable to political interference (such as broadcasting).”
“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.”
The ministerial responsibility rules complement the Conflict of Interest Act, the federal law that governs the ethical conduct of cabinet members.
On Thursday, the NDP and the Liberals accused the government of failing to abide by its own ethical standards.