Democracy Watch takes ethics commissioner to court in connection with Mulroney-Schreiber inquiry

Democracy Watch, an Ottawa-based group that promotes greater accountability in politics, has launched a legal challenge against a decision last month from the federal conflict of interest and ethics commissioner.

Democracy Watch will seek judicial review of Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson's ruling that Prime Minster Stephen Harper and his cabinet can set the terms and choose the commissioner to conduct a public inquiry into former prime minister Brian Mulroney's dealings with German businessman Karlheinz Schreiber.

The Mulroney government appointed Dawson as associate deputy minister of justice in 1988, according to a Democracy Watch news release. Dawson became the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner last year.

Below is an abridged version of the news release:


Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Democracy Watch Files Court Challenge of Federal Ethics Commissioner's Decision Allowing Prime Minister Harper and His Cabinet To Set Terms of Reference of Inquiry and To Choose Who Will Judge Themselves, Mulroney and Schreiber

OTTAWA - Today, Democracy Watch released details about the application it has filed in Federal Court challenging the precedent-setting ruling issued on January 7, 2008 by the federal Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson which concluded that, even when the Prime Minister's and Cabinet ministers' own actions and the actions of one of their close associates are in question, it is fine for them: to choose whether a judicial inquiry will take place; to set the scope of the inquiry; to choose the inquiry commissioner(s) who will judge them, and; to control a legal proceeding against another person who has made allegations about them.

Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper has acknowledged, and stated publicly, that he and all members of his government are in a conflict of interest concerning the Brian Mulroney-Karlheinz Schreiber situation, given that Mr. Mulroney acted until very recently as an adviser to the Prime Minister, Mr. Schreiber named the Prime Minister in a court affidavit, and the government is seeking the extradition of Mr. Schreiber to Germany. Despite recognizing his own conflict of interest, Mr. Harper continues to take part in discussions (including during several 2007 year-end interviews with the media) and make decisions about the situation.

Ethics Commissioner Dawson made the ruling in response to a complaint filed by Democracy Watch on November 26, 2007 that raised serious questions about the actions of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson with regard to the Brian Mulroney-Karlheinz Schreiber situation being in violation of the measures in the Conflict of Interest Act (the Act). She concluded that neither they nor any other Cabinet minister or Cabinet staff has a conflict of interest, and therefore they did not have to, and in the future do not have to, recuse themselves from making decisions concerning how the government deals with the situation.

"The federal Ethics Commissioner's ruling ignored the clear conflict of interest of the Conservative Cabinet when dealing with the Mulroney-Schreiber situation, a conflict even Prime Minister Harper has acknowledged, and dangerously weakened federal ethics standards by essentially making it legal for a prime minister or cabinet minister to decide whether there will be an inquiry into actions by them or their associates, and to choose their own judge, and to control legal proceedings involving people who have made allegations about them." said Duff Conacher, Coordinator of Democracy Watch. "Democracy Watch hopes the Federal Court of Canada will overturn the Ethics Commissioner's ruling and make it clear that federal politicians cannot make decisions in situations in which they have a clear private interest."

Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson's ruling ignored clear measures in the Act, well-established legal standards, and the public interest, and reached legally incorrect conclusions thereby letting Prime Minister Harper and his Cabinet ministers and Cabinet staff off the hook.

"It is more than unfortunate that in one of her first rulings the new federal Ethics Commissioner has ignored clear evidence and the main purpose of federal ethics rules of ensuring the public interest is upheld over the private interests of federal politicians and their friends," said Conacher.

It should be noted that Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson was appointed Associate Deputy Minister of Justice by then-Prime Minister Mulroney in 1988, and was selected by Prime Minister Harper and his Cabinet to be the Ethics Commissioner in spring 2007.

Democracy Watch is being represented on a pro-bono basis in the case by Yavar Hameed of the Ottawa law firm Hameed Farrokhzad St-Pierre. The Federal Court case file number is T-216-08.