TORONTO – A one-time top aide to former prime minister Stephen Harper was convicted of criminal influence-peddling by Ontario’s highest court on Friday.
In overturning a previous acquittal against Bruce Carson, the Court of Appeal said in a split decision that the case should go back to the trial judge for sentencing.
Carson, a senior adviser to Harper from the time the Conservatives took office in 2006 until 2008 and briefly in 2009, was charged in connection with attempts to promote the sale of water-purification systems for First Nations communities by a company known as H2O Pros and H2O Global. H2O had hired his former girlfriend, Michele McPherson, with whom he developed a romantic relationship in February 2010.
Evidence was that Carson admitted demanding a benefit for McPherson from H2O in exchange for using his government contacts on the company’s behalf. However, he denied his activities had anything to with “any matter of business relating to the government.”
In November 2015, Superior Court Justice Bonnie Warkentin found Carson not guilty, despite concluding that he had admitted trying to persuade officials within Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and cabinet ministers and their staff to buy the systems to McPherson’s benefit.
Those officials, the justice ruled, had no direct ability to sway First Nations communities to buy the equipment because the bands made their own decisions on such purchases and, as such, ‘there simply was no government business“ involved.
The prosecution appealed, with the issue turning on wording in the Criminal Code about whether Carson’s lobbying activities were linked to a “matter of business relating to the government.”
In overturning the acquittal, the Court of Appeal found Carson had indeed attempted to ensure his girlfriend could earn commissions on the sales of water-treatment systems to First Nations.
“It was understood that, in exchange, he would attempt to influence government decisions,” Justice Gladys Pardu wrote for the Appeal Court majority. “The essence of the offence is acceptance of a benefit for exercise of influence.”
As such, the court concluded, Carson’s conduct fell within the scope of the conduct captured by the Criminal Code provision under which he was charged.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Janet Simmons said Warkentin’s decision was based on a common-sense reading of the law and had correctly found the prosecution had failed to prove Carson’s conduct had violated the relevant section.
Carson was convicted in separate proceedings last September and fined $50,000 for illegal lobbying related to work he did on a national energy strategy while director of the Canada School of Energy and Environment and later as vice-chairman of the Energy Policy Institute of Canada.
The judge in that case found he had contact with ministers and deputy ministers as well as with officials in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office while employed at the institute even though he was still under a five-year lobbying ban because of his work at the PMO. The court heard that he earned about $600,000 for his lobbying work.