Canada’s ethics watchdog says his office verifies “allegations of friendships” before offering advice to politicians seeking guidance, amid parliamentary committee questioning over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s holiday vacation in Jamaica.
Interim ethics commissioner Konrad von Finckenstein told MPs on the House ethics committee Tuesday that his office did “our research” before Trudeau and his family left for the Caribbean nation Dec. 26 to Jan. 4.
“We verify allegations of friendship. We do our research,” he said, adding what Trudeau has said and what von Finckenstein’s office found “are coincident with the fact that this is a true friend who has no relations with the Government of Canada.”
“They consulted us. We gave advice. They went to Jamaica. If it had not been an acceptable gift, it would have had to be reported on our website.”
Von Finckenstein appeared before the committee after being summoned on Jan. 17 to testify about what Canada’s ethics laws allow when it comes to gifts, amid scrutiny over the prime minister’s trip with his three children and former spouse Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau.
Trudeau returned to Ottawa to face criticism for staying at an oceanfront villa in Jamaica at no cost, as reported by the National Post. Rooms go for around $9,300 per night, according to the resort’s website.
Prospect Estate and Villas located near Ocho Rios is owned by businessman Peter Green. The Green family has known the Trudeaus for decades, and Trudeau has faced criticisms and questions about stays at the same resort in the past.
Had Trudeau paid out of pocket, a nine-night stay would appear to be worth roughly $84,000.
Conservative MP Michael Barrett, who was among several authors who sent a letter to the committee’s chair requesting a meeting on the matter, was the first to question von Finckenstein on Tuesday.
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Barrett has taken issue with the Prime Minister’s Office’s framing of the trip; before the trip took place, the PMO initially said that it had consulted with the ethics commissioner, that the Trudeau family was paying for the stay, and that Trudeau would reimburse the cost of travelling on a government plane.
However, the PMO later said that while Trudeau had reimbursed the government for the equivalent of the cost of commercial flights, they stayed at “no cost at a location owned by family friends.”
The PMO then said on Jan. 10 “the prime minister and his family were staying with family friends at no cost.”
“The prime minister has offered three separate, public statements on this matter as to the disclosure to your office. … Can you say which one he consulted you on?” Barrett asked.
“No, I cannot. I pointed out it’s confidential. I’m not responsible for the spokesman of the prime minister and the way he characterizes our interaction. I can only tell you what happened,” von Finckenstein said.
Barrett also took issue with Government House Leader Steve MacKinnon’s framing of the trip, who said on Jan. 8 that Trudeau “got his travel plans preapproved by the ethics commissioner.”
“To be clear, do you pre-approve vacations by designated public office holders?” Barrett asked.
“I give advice, and when asked questions about conflict, we give the answer. The office holder can describe that advice that he gives whichever way he wants to refer it,” von Finckenstein said.
“In this case, they called it preclearance. That’s not a term I would have used.”
Von Finckenstein would not get into detail around what exactly was shared, citing confidentiality under the law, but said the Conflict of Interest Act allows for a public office holder to accept gifts or other advantages if they come from a friend or relative, without having to disclose them.
Von Finckenstein then went on to cite a section of the Act that states if a reporting public office holder or a member of their family accepts any single gift or other advantage that has a value of $200 or more, other than one from a relative or friend, the reporting public office holder has 30 days to publicly declare sufficient detail to identify the gift or other advantage accepted, the donor and the circumstances under which it was accepted.
“Now, 30 days have passed since the prime minister disclosed that he went to Jamaica. Nothing has been published on our website,” he said.
“Now, from the facts that I gave you under the provision of the law. You can draw your own conclusions as to what the advice was that I gave and what happened. I under law cannot give you any more.”
— with files from The Canadian Press
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