Federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion has ended his investigation of former finance minister Bill Morneau’s WE Charity-funded trips to Kenya and Ecuador and says he accepts Morneau’s contention that he thought he had reimbursed the travel costs, CBC News has learned.
“I accept that you genuinely believed you had paid for the entire cost of both trips, including the portion of the trip that involved the use of non-commercial chartered aircraft,” Dion wrote in an Oct. 28 letter — a reference to the private plane the Morneau family used for some of their travel in these developing countries.
While Dion has dropped his probe into the trips, the commissioner made clear that he is still investigating whether Morneau breached the Conflict of Interest Act by failing to recuse himself from cabinet deliberations on the WE Charity summer student grants contract due to his close family ties to the organization.
“I remain seized of allegations relating to possible violations of subsection 6(1) and section 21 of the Act,” Dion wrote, citing the section of the Conflict of Interest Act that forbids public office holders from making or participating in decisions that would put them in a conflict of interest.
At the time, Morneau’s daughter, Grace, worked at WE in the travel department. His other daughter, Clare, has spoken at WE Day events. Morneau has apologized for participating in these cabinet talks.
Morneau resigned as finance minister and MP in August as the WE Charity scandal swept the Liberal government.
In announcing his departure, Morneau said he had not been pushed out and he was putting in a bid to be the next secretary general for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Morneau revealed in July that his wife and daughter travelled to Kenya in the summer of 2017 to learn about WE Charity-run schools there.
Later that same year, Morneau travelled to Ecuador with his family to help with the charity’s humanitarian work in South America.
Morneau said he learned this summer — as the finance committee was probing the Liberal government’s decision to hand a multi-million-dollar summer student grants program to WE — that he had not reimbursed WE for some of the travel expenses.
WE had covered some $41,000 in Morneau family costs related to the two trips — expenses the former finance minister subsequently repaid after he found out that those costs had not been paid by him personally.
NDP MP Charlie Angus asked Dion to investigate whether Morneau ran afoul of the ethics law that prohibits ministers or their family members from accepting free travel.
Dion subsequently launched a probe into whether Morneau broke the ethics law by “failing to disclose these gifts.”
But in a Oct. 28 letter, obtained by CBC, Dion said there’s no reason to continue his investigation into this matter.
“I have also reviewed the documentary evidence submitted as part of my examination under the act … this evidence corroborates your position with respect to your belief that you paid for the total cost of your and your family’s personal travel in 2017,” Dion said.
“Moreover, the evidence suggests that the WE organization invited your spouse and daughter to participate in these trips, and that you had no involvement in the planning and preparation of either event.”
He said that because Morneau took “corrective measures” and repaid the trip costs, “I am of the view that you did not accept a gift from WE Charity.”
In a statement released Thursday evening, WE co-founder Craig Kielburger praised the ethics commissioner’s decision.
“We are pleased with the ethics commissioner’s finding that there was no ethical breach in these volunteer trips,” said Kielburger. “We have always maintained that these trips were done in good faith and welcome this important clarification of the facts.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is also under investigation for his role in the WE Charity summer student contracts affair. His brother and mother were paid some $300,000 for WE speaking engagements. Trudeau also has apologized for not recusing himself from cabinet deliberations on this matter.