PMO denies misleading ethics commissioner as Conservatives call for probe

PMO denies misleading ethics commissioner as Conservatives call for probe © Provided by The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — The Prime Minister’s Office is denying allegations it misled the ethics commissioner, after the federal Conservatives called for an investigation into Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s vacation in Jamaica.

The Conservatives want the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner to look into how PMO staff handled the detail that Trudeau stayed for free.

Press secretary Mohammad Hussain said in a statement Wednesday evening that “as per standard practice, the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner was consulted prior to the travel to ensure that the rules were followed.”

“Any allegation that we would mislead the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner is categorically false.”

Conservative MP and ethics critic Michael Barrett sent a letter to commissioner Konrad von Finckenstein on Tuesday asking whether he knew Trudeau was staying at a luxury estate owned by a family friend.

Barrett says the vacation is “not the equivalent of staying at a friend’s home” calling it instead a gift with commercial value.

The Canadian Press has not independently verified a National Post report that Trudeau vacationed at a luxury estate owned by longtime family friend Peter Green. Green’s Prospect Estate rents villas for between US$1,100 and US$7,000 a night during the holiday season.

“I recognize that those of us in public office have pre-existing friendships, and it is not completely uncommon to stay at a friend’s home over a holiday,” Barrett said in his letter.

“And I also recognize that Justin Trudeau, as a child of wealth and privilege, is likely to have wealthy and privileged friends.”

However, Barrett said the fact Trudeau was gifted such an expensive vacation “could reasonably be seen,” as being intended to influence a government head.

Earlier in the day on Wednesday, the PMO said in a statement that “the Prime Minister and his family were staying with family friends at no cost.”

That is slightly different from last week, when the PMO said the family was staying at a location owned by family friends, not that they were staying with the family.

But that too was different from what the Prime Minister’s Office said before the trip took place, when it said the family was paying for the cost of the vacation. It clarified last week, shortly before the National Post story ran, that in fact Trudeau had reimbursed the government for the equivalent of the cost of commercial flights, but the accommodation in Jamaica was free.

Barrett also raised concerns with the ethics commissioner about the changing narrative from Trudeau’s staff about who was footing the bills for the vacation.

A spokeswoman for von Finckenstein would not say last week what details the Prime Minister’s Office provided about the trip but did say 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.

In a statement Wednesday, another spokeswoman for the office underlined it “does not approve or ‘clear'” vacations, but  “has a role only in ensuring that the gift provisions” in both the conflict of interest and ethics code are followed.

As for Barrett’s letter, spokeswoman Melanie Rushworth said the office is limited in what it can say due to confidentiality provisions.

Source: Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press