Minister of International Trade, Export Promotion, Small Business and Economic Development Mary Ng speaks during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday, May 19, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Minister of International Trade, Export Promotion, Small Business and Economic Development Mary Ng speaks during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday, May 19, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Trade Minister Mary Ng broke ethics rules over contract to friend, commissioner rules

International Trade Minister Mary Ng apologized Tuesday after the federal ethics commissioner concluded she broke the rules by awarding a contract to a friend — opening the door for the Opposition Conservatives to point out that it’s not the first time a Liberal cabinet minister has faced such rulings.

Mario Dion released his report in response to a complaint federal Conservative MP James Bezan, the party’s former ethics critic, lodged in May.

Ng’s office had awarded a contract to the public relations firm Pomp and Circumstance in the spring of 2020. While it was only worth just under $17,000, Bezan raised concerns over a potential breach of conflict-of-interest rules, given the existence of a friendship between Ng and the firm’s co-founder Amanda Alvaro.

In his report, Dion said he interviewed both Ng and Alvaro, who had known each other for nearly 20 years and described their connection as a friendship. Dion determined their relationship fit the definition of friendship under the Conflict of Interest Act.

In the lead-up to Ng’s office giving a contract to Alvaro’s firm, Dion said that in March 2020 — when the country was first grappling with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic — Ng “initiated an informal telephone conversation” with her friend to discuss “her concern that she wanted to be best prepared to address Canadians and businesses.”

Dion said both confirmed to him that they did not discuss a contract with each other, with Ng saying “the entire process was delegated” to her chief of staff, who was aware of the friendship.

“Based on the documents provided by both Ms. Ng and Ms. Alvaro, Ms. Ng does not appear to have been involved in the subsequent discussions pertaining to the negotiation of the final terms of the contract,” Dion wrote.

But he concluded the minister broke a section of the act by failing to recuse herself from the process that led to the decision to award the contract — something the commissioner says Ng herself acknowledged during the investigation.

Dion reported that duringhis probe,Ng disclosed that the firm also received a contract in 2019 for $5,840.

“There is simply no excuse for contracting with a friend’s company,” Dion said in a statement Tuesday.

“This includes the need to quickly obtain media training services to help Minister Ng respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020.”

“Ministers are expected to uphold the highest standards of accountability, including those set out in the Conflict of Interest Act. Complying with the act is a condition of appointment and employment for all public office holders.”

During question period in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Ng said she accepts “full responsibility” and should have recused herself the decision-making process around the contract.

“At no time was there any intention for anyone to benefit inappropriately,” said Ng.

“My efforts fell short of my own high personal standard for transparency and accountability, which Canadians have a right to expect from their elected officials. I am sorry, and it won’t happen again.”

Alvaro did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

In the House, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre pressed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on whether Ng would be required to return the money paid to Alvaro’s firm.

Trudeau sidestepped the question, instead making a statement about a byelection win in Ontario for the Liberals on Monday night.

Conservative MP Michael Barrett, who serves as the party’s ethics critic, said Ng is only the latest member of the Liberal cabinet to be found to have broken ethics rules.

Trudeau himself was found guilty of violating the act by accepting a trip to the Aga Khan’s private island in 2017, and the ethics commissioner chastised him again in 2019 over his role in the SNC-Lavalin scandal.

In 2020, Dion cleared Trudeau of wrongdoing when the government awarded a since-cancelled contract to WE Charity, which the prime minister’s family has connections to. But former finance minister Bill Morneau was found to have breached the rules.

And in 2018, Dion ruled that Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc had run afoul of conflict-of-interest rules by approving an Arctic surf clam licence to a company where a family member worked.

“The trend continues now with their trade minister,” Barrett said. He called for Ng to resign.

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