Liberal incumbent candidate Judy Sgro has offered conflicting stories about who paid for a 2017 trip she took to Italy, a trip the Conservatives now want the ethics commissioner to investigate because of allegations that she accepted free travel without reporting it to authorities as required under Canada's conflict of interest code.
Sgro, another Liberal incumbent, Franceso Sorbara, and a then-Toronto city councillor, Vincent Crisanti, travelled to Matera in the picturesque region of Basilicata as part of an "economic development" trip to strengthen bilateral ties between Toronto and this Italian city of 60,000 people.
Sorbara paid for the trip himself, Cristani billed city taxpayers for the costs he incurred, and the Toronto Star reported in 2018 that the Basilicata Cultural Society of Canada, a group that promotes the culture of this Italian region in Canada, paid for Sgro's travel.
Sgro, who has been in elected office for more than 30 years, is running to represent the Liberal party in the Toronto riding of Humber River–Black Creek. She said it cost taxpayers nothing for her to tour famous caves, visit a pasta-making factory and take in the vineyards of an area that is the ancestral home of many Italian Canadians.
Trips paid for by third parties are legal — as long as the MPs who accept this hospitality report the sponsored expenses to the ethics commissioner. The code is in place to provide some transparency to the public about which groups are trying to curry favour with politicians by sending them, and often their family members, on trips abroad.
The ethics commissioner's annual report on sponsored travel reveals dozens of MPs from across the political spectrum accept tens of thousands of dollars worth of free trips each year. In 2019, for example, MPs received $227,116.73 in free flights, hotels and other incidentals from Canadian, Israeli, Taiwanese, Ukrainian and other groups.
But Sgro's trip is not documented in the commissioner's list of sponsored travel for the year in question.
Reached by phone Wednesday, Sgro said she has an explanation for why the trip wasn't reported. She said she paid for the trip — and she never actually told the newspaper that the Basilicata cultural group covered her travel costs.
"Why would I say that?" Sgro told CBC News. "We paid for that. These regional clubs don't have the funds for that. It's not a sophisticated organization that can pay people to go places. That's not the way they work."
Rather, Sgro said, she and her husband, frequent visitors to the country, stopped in on the events when they heard officials in Matera were hosting a Canadian delegation. "They asked us to go by while they were doing this thing with Toronto," she said.
Asked why she didn't tell the Star to issue a correction to a story that quotes her saying the Basilicata Cultural Society paid her way, Sgro said she was too busy and didn't want to bother going through the process of requesting that sort of retraction.
"I should have challenged that," she said.
In a subsequent email to CBC News, Sgro said she still had no intention of asking the newspaper to issue a correction even though she now faces a possible ethics investigation. She declined to provide documentation to support her assertion that she herself paid for the travel to Italy.
"Sorry, I have an election to run and little time to deal with something from 2017 for the time being at least," Sgro said.
CBC News spoke to Samantha Beattie, the then Toronto Star reporter who wrote the 2018 story documenting the trip and the costs incurred by politicians.
Beattie, who now works for CBC Toronto, shared the contemporaneous notes she took while interviewing Sgro three years ago.
At the time, when asked who paid, Sgro told Beattie that the Basilicata group "themselves had raised the money to promote this initiative," to send her and other politicians to the region to build closer ties and "promote various investment opportunities."
The other MP on the trip, Sorbara, also told Beattie that Basilicata approached him about the trip, but he ultimately paid his own way because he was already in Italy on a personal vacation.
The Basilicata Cultural Society has not responded to multiple requests for comment about the funding of Sgro's trip.
But Beattie said the group's treasurer confirmed to her in 2018 that Basilicata had paid for Sgro to go and that he was proud to have flown this MP to a small Italian city.
In the 2018 Star story, Petrozza said, referring to the politicians, "They opened up to us very easily. They said, 'Yes, why not?'" when offered the chance to travel to the region.
Asked again Friday if she had any thing to say about the conflicting stories, Sgro said: "Sorry. I have very limited time right now to comment."
Conservative candidate Laila Goodridge is now calling for an investigation. In a letter to Mario Dion, the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner, Goodridge said Sgro's "public comments and disclosures raise questions as to why she did not publicly disclose sponsored third-party travel.
"It also raises questions as to whether or not Ms. Sgro's public statements are accurate and whether or not taxpayer money was used to pay for the trip," Goodridge said.
In an interview, Conservative candidate Michael Barrett, the party's ethics critic, said Sgro may be "in violation of federal law."
"This public disclosure is important because Canadians deserve to know which third parties are providing expensive gifts to representatives that are voting on laws and introducing legislation," he said.
Barrett, who is running in the Ontario riding of Leeds–Grenville–Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, said Sgro's statement that she's too busy to ask the Star to correct an apparently false story defies logic.
"It's disingenuous to say you're too busy. I don't know of too many members who would allow for a misrepresentation or a falsehood to stand in a printed publication without seeking a retraction or a correction," he said. "If a member sees something that's incorrect or incomplete, it's expected that they would look to set the record straight."
Barrett said he wants the ethics commissioner to probe who paid for the trip and determine if it should have been reported.
"I'd say it speaks to the need for tougher accountability rules in Ottawa when members can just kind shrug and say, 'Oh I'm too busy to sort that out.' Clearly, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals have determined that the rules don't apply to them, and it certainly sends the wrong message to Canadians."
This is not the first time that Sgro has faced questions about ethics.
In 2011, the Ottawa Citizen reported that Sgro used her taxpayer-funded House of Commons travel allowance to pay for rent on an apartment that her children owned.
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Sgro had purchased the Ottawa condo, transferred the title to her children and then used her Commons allowance to send them $1,833 a month in rent.
The bylaws of the House of Commons board of internal economy (BOIE), the all-party committee that essentially governs MPs, forbid members from hiring family members or contracting goods and services from them. The Canadian Press reported in 2015 that Sgro was forced by the BOIE to repay some $60,000 in improperly claimed living expenses.