Commissioner says it's time to review N.S. Conflict of Interest Act

Joseph Kennedy is Nova Scotia's conflict of interest commissioner. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)
Joseph Kennedy is Nova Scotia's conflict of interest commissioner. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)

Nova Scotia's conflict of interest commissioner says it's time for a review of the province's Conflict of Interest Act.

Joseph Kennedy made the comments to reporters on Wednesday, following a meeting of the legislature's public accounts committee.

"The act hasn't been looked at for quite a while," he said. "It's time to do it."

Kennedy noted that although he gets inquiries from "every aspect of government," the act does not require that his office be contacted. One question to consider is whether that should change, he said.

And while the commissioner has the power to order people to return money or levy fines of up to $10,000, Kennedy said he cannot do either without first doing an inquiry. That's also not a straightforward process.

"I don't do inquiries of my own volition. I have to be asked to do them," he said.

When asked, there is a threshold test that must be satisfied before an inquiry can go forward. Kennedy said he's received several requests for inquiries during his three years on the job, but so far none of them have met the threshold test.

During his time in the role, the former chief justice of Nova Scotia's Supreme Court has written 220 conflict opinions.

Kennedy said it would be to people's advantage to contact his office if they need guidance about something that could blur the lines between their duties as a member of the public service and private sector interests.

His experience is that most people want to follow the rules.

"This is Nova Scotia, not Texas," he said.

"I am regularly happy with the concern that people show for conflict of interest and the people are trying to stay out of trouble, and that's why I've got all those opinions out there."

Recent conflict of interest

Last week, the province's auditor general issued a report that found multiple examples of conflict of interest on the part of the former director of the Metropolitan Regional Housing Authority, Jamie Vigliarolo.

Kennedy said he only learned of the matter when the auditor general came to him seeking an opinion. That opinion is confidential, but Kennedy said he agreed with everything in the auditor general's report.

Housing officials with Nova Scotia's new provincial housing agency told the committee Wednesday that since the auditor general's report, a new conflict of interest policy in keeping with provincial guidelines has been applied to all employees.

People are required to review the policy, training is being made available and all employees are required to sign declaration statements by Feb. 15. Disclosure will be reviewed on a yearly basis.

Pam Menchenton, the executive director of client services for the Nova Scotia Provincial Housing Agency, said internal auditors are also reviewing the other former district housing authorities to ensure there were no other issues.

"We want to do a deep dive into our operations," Menchenton said. "We're taking this very seriously."

David Laughlin/CBC
David Laughlin/CBC

The new conflict of interest policy, which follows government practices, calls for senior leadership to make referrals to the conflict of interest commissioner as they deem appropriate.

Deputy housing minister Paul Lafleche told reporters he would be consulting with the deputy minister of justice to determine if that policy should become prescriptive rather than discretionary.

Meanwhile, officials with the Housing Department are waiting to hear from Justice Department officials about whether the conflicts of interest identified last week by the auditor general should be referred to the police.