The office of Canada’s conflict of interest and ethics commissioner received a complaint about MP Yasmin Ratansi employing her sister using public funds more than two and a half years ago, but turned it away, CBC News has learned.
Commissioner Mario Dion’s office confirmed it said the complaint didn’t “appear” to fall under its jurisdiction when it received it in 2018. The office has since changed its mind; it sent a letter of concern to Ratansi and launched a preliminary review of the case following media coverage.
“It does appear in looking at this we could have approached this differently in 2018, and perhaps we should have caught the allegation against MP Ratansi,” wrote Jocelyne Brisebois, a communications officer with Dion’s office, in a statement to CBC News.
Ratansi, a longtime MP for Don Valley East, announced last week she had left the Liberal caucus after CBC News revealed that she had been employing her sister as her constituency assistant since 2017 in violation of Parliamentary rules. MPs are not allowed to hire immediate family members, including siblings.
Several former employees told CBC News Ratansi tried to “cover up” the relationship at the office by having her sister go by the first name ‘Jenny’. Former staffers also said they saw Ratansi’s sister hide in an office or under her desk when people came into the office who might recognize her, and alleged they were instructed not to take photos of her at work events.
MPs have their own operating budgets and are allowed to pay constituency assistants a maximum salary of $89,700 a year, according to the House of Commons. That means Ratansi could have paid her sister up to $269,100 for three years of salary.
Complaint submitted in April 2018
A member of the public sent an email to Dion’s office on April 10, 2018 alerting the office to the situation with Ratansi’s sister.
“To my understanding Members of Parliament are not allowed to hire family members,” said the original tip, according to an image of the email posted to Twitter. “It appears on paper that Ms. Ratansi has hired her sister to work in her office.”
The commissioner’s office confirmed to CBC News it “did receive such an email,” adding the message was about two employees.
“The response reflected our view at the time that the email was a complaint relating to two employees of a Member, who are not subject to the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons,” said Margot Booth, manager of communications at Dion’s office.
“In reviewing our records, it now appears that it may have related to the conduct of the Member herself.”
‘Too little, too late’
Duff Conacher is the co-founder of Democracy Watch, a non-profit group in Ottawa advocating for government accountability. He said it isn’t “justifiable” for the ethics commissioner to fail to investigate such a complaint when it receives what he calls a small number of complaints annually — 39 a year, according to the 2018-2019 annual report. The office closed 28 of those cases without proceeding to an examination, according to that report.
“They should have investigated and this whole thing should have been wrapped up long ago,” said Conacher. “What the ethics commissioner is doing now is too little, too late.
“The ethics commissioner’s office’s whole enforcement system is just rife with loopholes and watchdogs who are really lapdogs. It’s not a surprise it’s gone on as long as it has without being stopped.”
Conacher said the office should have referred the matter to RCMP years ago as a possible breach of trust under the Criminal Code, citing a five-part test for breach of trust laid out in the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling in R. v. Boulanger.
The RCMP said it would not comment beyond saying it “generally does not confirm or deny the existence of a criminal investigation unless charges would be laid.”
Conacher also is calling on Dion to start conducting routine audits of MPs’ spending and to publish annually a list of complaints his office receives, with short summaries and explanations of actions taken.
“If that happened then two years ago, we would have known they received a complaint about an MP hiring their sister and that they did nothing about it,” he said. “Instead, it’s remained hidden for two years.”
Commons board looking into matter separately
In 2018, the ethics commissioner’s office told the original complainant that the House of Commons’ Board of Internal Economy (BOIE) is responsible for such matters.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc is a member of the BOIE. Last week, he told Vassy Kapelos, host of the CBC’s Power and Politics, that the BOIE hadn’t been aware that Ratansi had her sister on the payroll.
“No, of course we didn’t know, or the Board of Internal Economy would have corrected that,” said LeBlanc. “Anybody who misuses taxpayers money in a way that doesn’t follow the clear rules that everyone understood, or should have understood, should be held accountable.”
Heather Bradley, director of communications for House of Commons administration, said the matter will be brought up at an upcoming meeting of the BOIE, which has the exclusive authority to determine if MP expenditures violate House rules.
“The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner process is separate and distinct, and does not detract from the Board’s exclusive authority to determine whether expenditures are proper and in accordance with the by-laws, policies and guidelines it has established,” said Bradley in a media statement.
CBC News has sent multiple requests for comment to Ratansi’s office since Nov. 8 but has not received a response. In a statement on Facebook that’s since been removed, Ratansi wrote on Nov. 9 she made an “error in judgment” by employing her sister.
“To the constituents of Don Valley East and to anyone I may have disappointed by my error of judgment, I take full responsibility, and to all I do apologize,” Ratansi wrote.
Ratansi is also facing claims she repeatedly made offensive comments and created a “toxic and verbally abusive” environment at her office. Several former staffers say Ratansi mistreated employees by yelling at them, insulting their appearances and publicly ridiculing their work.
Multiple sources also said that, when constituents from South Asian communities called about family reunification and immigration cases, Ratansi on some occasions told staff to stop working on some of their files because she felt the individuals involved were “untrustworthy” or suggested they “lied” because of their ethnicity.
The BOIE is scheduled to meet on Thursday but its agenda has not been posted yet.