Justin Trudeau Has 'Full Confidence' in Chief of Staff Amid Lobbying Questions

The lobbying commissioner is looking into the communication between a former lobbyist and the prime minister's office following a VICE News report.
Justin Ling
Montreal, Canada
August 31, 2020, 6:49pm
Justin Trudeau
Justin Trudeau in Montreal, August 31. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won’t say if he’s concerned that a well-connected former lobbyist was able to request specific legislative changes of his government without anyone, apparently, reporting it to Canada’s lobbying watchdog.

Lobbying Commissioner Nancy Bélanger is reviewing communications between Rob Silver, a vice president at mortgage giant MCAP, and Trudeau’s government, after VICE News reported earlier this month that Silver demanded then-finance minister Bill Morneau’s office tweak an emergency wage subsidy to benefit his company.

But when asked by VICE News on Monday whether his office should have reported those communications, Trudeau said that “in this case, all the rules were followed.”

Silver had repeatedly asked Morneau’s office earlier this year to expand the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy so that companies like his, which is mostly owned by Quebec’s largest pension fund, would qualify for the federal assistance. When Morneau’s office refused, Silver went to Mike McNair, Trudeau’s senior-most policy advisor around COVID-19, who referred him back to Morneau’s office, per sources familiar with the matter.

The prime minister’s office has refused to say whether those communications were reported to the lobbying commissioner.

Silver is married to Katie Telford, Trudeau’s chief of staff. While there is no allegation that she did anything inappropriate in the matter, Trudeau added: “I have full confidence in my chief of staff.” He noted that Telford had sought advice from the ethics commissioner when Silver took the job at MCAP earlier this year, but did not mention the lobbying commissioner.

In an email to VICE News, the commissioner’s office wrote that “a preliminary assessment was initiated” into the matter, as was first reported by the Globe and Mail last week. The commissioner, however, wouldn’t confirm whether a formal investigation has been opened. But added that “if the Commissioner has reason to believe that an offence has been committed under the Lobbying Act, she must suspend her investigation and transfer the file to a peace officer.”

Under the Lobbying Act, those who seek legislative or regulatory changes from government officials, especially to benefit their own business, generally must register with the commissioner and report all their communications with those officials. 

The test for whether those communications constitutes lobbying is commonly referred to as the ‘20 percent test”—if, per the Act, communicating with government officials constitutes a “significant part of the duties of one employee or would constitute a significant part of the duties of one employee if they were performed by only one employee” they must register.

Silver is likely familiar with the Act, as a former lobbyist at Crestview Strategy. He has refused repeated interview requests.

In determining if the Act was broken, the commissioner will need to determine whether Silver and MCAP spent a “significant” amount of time dealing with the Trudeau government, especially in requesting changes to the COVID-19 emergency programs.

MCAP has had major dealings with Ottawa since the beginning of the pandemic, given they were chosen to administer part of the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program, worth $84 million. Silver himself was part of the negotiations around the program. 

But Trudeau, on Monday, refused to comment on the questions about potentially improper lobbying.

“Those are questions better suited for the company in question,” he said.

MCAP did not direct questions about the communications between Silver and the prime minister’s office, but told VICE News earlier in August that “MCAP, through counsel, consulted with Canada’s Lobbying Commissioner in January to establish proper screens and protocols around any engagement with government. MCAP and its employees and officers have strictly complied with the letter and spirit of this guidance and all applicable laws.”

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