Nigel Wright faces conflict of interest questions over Barrick Gold links

Pointed questions are beginning to swirl around Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, and whether he used his position to further the financial interests of friends at Barrick Gold Corp.


OTTAWA—Pointed questions are beginning to swirl around Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, and whether he used his position to further the financial interests of friends at Barrick Gold Corp (TSX:ABX).

Ethics commissioner Mary Dawson is following up with Wright after the disclosure that he was lobbied twice by Barrick, the world’s largest gold producer, in May.

Wright has known Barrick founder and board chairman Peter Munk for years and is particularly close to his son, Anthony, who sits on Barrick’s board of directors.

Indeed, in a 2011 magazine article, Peter Munk disclosed that Wright is godfather to Anthony Munk’s son. Wright worked with Anthony at Onex Corp. (TSX:OCX), the private equity investment giant from which Wright has taken a leave of absence to work for Harper.

Wright also served as a director on the board of the Aurea Foundation, a charitable foundation established by Peter Munk and his wife in 2006 to support the study and development of public policy. He resigned from the board shortly before joining Harper’s office in November 2010.

In a story in the April 2011 edition of The Walrus, Peter Munk lavished praise on Wright.

“I’d rank Nigel Wright among the mere handful of people I’ve met in whom I have complete trust,” Munk was quoted as saying. “He’s just one of those rare human beings with whom you feel totally comfortable in seeking an opinion or discussing complex issues, on any subject.”

According to a report summary filed by Barrick with the federal lobbying commissioner, someone from the company — the report does not identify who — contacted Wright on May 14 to discuss international relations and international trade.

Nine days later, a second report indicates, Barrick talked to Wright again on the same subject matter — this time along with Harper’s foreign policy adviser, Andrea van Vugt, and his principal secretary, Ray Novak, who is Harper’s point man on government-to-government relations.

Barrick’s contact with Wright came shortly after Harper blocked a resolution on Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands during the Summit of the Americas in Colombia in mid-April. The Globe and Mail reported at the time that Harper’s stance infuriated Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who stormed out of the conference, muttering, “This is pointless. Why did I even come here?”

Barrick operates a mine in Argentina and is developing another controversial open pit gold and silver mine that straddles the border between Chile and Argentina.

Companies were “freaked out” that Harper’s performance at the Summit of the Americas was making it harder for them to obtain permits from the Argentine government for their mining operations, said New Democrat MP and ethics critic Charlie Angus.

“What I was told was Canadian permitting suddenly got a lot more difficult, that there was an immediate blow-back on Canadian mining interests,” Angus said.

“We don’t know what was said at the meeting (with Wright). But we know what the interests were for Barrick, ” he added.

“There would have been an obvious reason they would want to meet … They’re interested in getting permitting for a very controversial mine site and they don’t need the prime minister making waves.”

The NDP is contemplating a formal complaint with the ethics commissioner’s office, Angus said, adding that Wright should not have participated in any discussion involving Barrick, regardless of the subject matter, given his relationship with the Munks.

“He has very close personal relations, they have a huge financial stake and he is the chief adviser to the prime minister. He needs to recuse himself. That’s what the Conflict of Interest Act calls for.”

The ethics commissioner’s office appeared to be unaware of the matter until contacted by The Canadian Press.

“We will follow up with Mr. Wright,” said Margot Booth, spokeswoman for Dawson’s office. “Beyond that, the office cannot comment on individual cases.”

Asked about the propriety of Wright being lobbied by Barrick given his ties to the Munk family, Andrew MacDougall, Harper’s communications director, would say only: “Mr. Wright did not take part in any decision with respect to Barrick Gold.”

MacDougall declined to discuss publicly the subject of Barrick’s lobbying.

Barrick spokesperson Andy Lloyd did not respond to a request for further information about who lobbied Wright and the precise subject matter. He confirmed that the lobbying report summaries were accurate and noted that Barrick “is registered to lobby on various matters that affect our business.”

“All of our lobbying activities are carried out in accordance with the regulations,” Lloyd added in an email.

A person doesn’t necessarily need to be involved in actual decision-making to wind up in a conflict of interest.

Under the Conflict of Interest Act, a public office holder is supposed to recuse himself or herself from “any discussion, decision, debate or vote on any matter” which could result in a conflict.

The act describes conflict of interest as the exercise of “an official power, duty or function that provides (the public office holder) an opportunity to further his or her private interests or those of his or her relatives or friends or to improperly further another person’s private interests.”

On the advice of the federal ethics watchdog, Wright set up a “conflict of interest screen” when he joined the Prime Minister’s Office. The screen is meant to ensure that Wright abstains from any participation in matters relating to Onex, its subsidiaries and affiliates or even involving general policy matters, such as tax treatment of the private equity industry, that could affect Onex.

The question now is whether Wright should also have recused himself from discussions involving Barrick.

Harper, when he was in opposition, used to rail against cronyism in the PMO, Angus said.

“It was always this thing of who you know in the PMO and that’s what Mr. Harper said he was going to change. And yet, time and time and time again when there’s ethics issues, they just shrug them off.”


Nigel Wright faces conflict of interest questions over Barrick Gold links

  1. Another Con being a con. Gotta love how harpo has surrounded himself with some of the worst political scum Canada has ever seen.

  2. Once again the main stream media has rushed to print a story that has no fact other than hearsay. The same media that for months condemned the Tories accusing them of robocalls that turned an election around. Then the Liberal party proved to be the offender. Recently the NDP were fined 340 thousand dollars for illegal advertising that was hardly mentioned in the media. For those who might have spent time in the the old Soviet Union the majority of the media sound like Pravda only the bias is against the government. If they would only open their eyes and see that this constant condemning of the government is having the opposite affect on thinking Canadians.Do they really want a socialist government in Canada ? Is it because their nose is so out of joint because they can no longer dictate policy to a weak federal government as in the past.The Craig Oliver’s and CBC are no longer on the list to the cocktail parties It is time for some of these intrepid reporters to visit the rest of Canada..

  3. Considering Argentina’s socialist governments recent nationalization of Spanish company REPSOL’s assets in Argentina I can understand why any foreign company might be nervous. The media should get the facts first before jumping to rather spurious conclusions.

    And well said centigrade.

  4. The MSM HAS TO Spin this story, Dippers caught in their own Adscam, Lieberal Senator with his Child Bride in the news and Lieberals Fined for Robo Calling In Guelph. They have to take the HEAT off The Dippers and Lieberals so Komarade Bryden invents this story …………………..

  5. While Wright’s meetings are wrong, they are unfortunately legal, and this is the problem that the media should be covering. In fact, in almost every case it is legal for Wright, and every Cabinet minister and staff person, and every senior government official, and every MP and senator and their staff, to lobby and make decisions on issues and matters in which they, their families and friends have financial or other interests.

    This is all legal because of a huge loophole added in December 2003 by Paul Martin to the federal Cabinet ethics law, and that MPs and senators included in 2004-2005 in their new House and Senate ethics codes. Stephen Harper promised in the 2006 election to remove the loophole from the Cabinet ethics law but he broke his promise.

    The effect of the Martin loophole is that no one is considered to be in a conflict of interest unless they are dealing with a very specific matter such as a merger, takeover, license, approval or contract (and only about 1% of their decisions are about these things).

    To put it another way, federal ethics rules do not apply to 99% of the decisions and actions of federal politicians and senior policy-makers.

    These very weak rules combined with the very weak enforcement attitude and record of federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson (who has interpreted rules in many cases in very questionable ways that let Cabinet ministers and MPs off-the-hook), and the weak
    enforcement powers of the Senate Ethics Officer, mean that it is effectively legal for all federal politicians, staff and senior government officials to be unethical.

    Ironically, the ethics rules that apply to the most junior government employees require them to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest in all their decisions and actions. In other words, the least powerful decision-makers in the federal government have the strongest ethics rules (although these rules are also not effectively enforced because of the generally weak enforcement attitude and record of internal auditors, senior government officials, and the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner).

    The Cabinet ethics law (called the Conflict of Interest Act), and the MPs’ ethics code, will be reviewed by House committees this fall, and the Senate is also reviewing its code. We can only hope that they will close this huge loophole (and many others) and strengthen enforcement so that everyone involved in federal politics will, finally, be required to be ethical.

    These loopholes, and weak enforcement exist in every municipality, province and territory across Canada, and so they all need to close loopholes and strengthen enforcement to ensure ethics in politics across the country.

    Hope this helps,
    Duff Conacher, Founding Board member of Democracy Watch