A Toronto MP is leaving the Liberal caucus after CBC News found she had employed her sister in her constituency office for years using public funds— a violation of parliamentary rules.
Yasmin Ratansi announced her departure late Monday on Facebook.
"I made an error in judgment by employing my sister in my constituency office, and I have remedied the situation, but this does not excuse the error I made," she wrote.
Ratansi said she will continue sitting as an Independent, representing her constituents in Don Valley East, and will "await guidance" from the ethics commissioner.
The statement comes more than 30 hours after CBC News asked her office for comment on the issue.
Several former staffers told CBC News Ratansi tried to cover up the relationship by having her sister use a fake first name and telling some staff to keep their family connection quiet.
"I think it's horrific that a member of Parliament that's entrusted to behave honourable and ethically can get away with impunity," said a former employee. "It really questions the integrity of the institutions."
Ratansi, a backbencher, is a trained accountant and became the first Muslim woman elected to the House of Commons in 2004. She lost the seat in 2011 and won it back in 2015. Ratansi is the chair of the standing committee on environment and used to be the vice-chair of the committee overseeing federal government departments' expenses.
Her sister Zeenat Khatri has worked as her constituency assistant for much of her time in office, according to six former staffers.
During her early years as an MP, it was against the rules to hire "immediate family" including parents, spouses and children, but not siblings. That changed in 2012 when the House's Board of Internal Economy updated its bylaws, said House director of communications Heather Bradley.
MPs have their own operating budget 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 $267,000 for three years of salary.
Multiple sources said Ratansi employed her sister from at least 2005 to 2011, then hired her again in 2017. But that time, said the sources, Ratansi and Khatri told staff to call her "Jenny" rather than Zeenat — a name she hadn't used in the office before. CBC News has seen one business card bearing the name "Jenny Khatri."
"Yasmin told us explicitly — my sister will be coming to work in our office," said that same former employee. "She was going to assume a different name, so she was going to be referred to as Jenny.
"The idea was we bring her in but try to conceal her identity, keep her hidden, keep her tucked away so that people don't find out that her sister is employed in the office."
CBC News spoke to five former employees who worked for Ratansi's office between 2015 and present and a sixth person who worked for her more than a decade ago. They spoke on condition of confidentiality, citing fear of retaliation from Ratansi herself and of potential harm to their careers.
Two former employees said Ratansi and Khatri went to great lengths to cover up their family connection from constituents.
"The fact that she hired her sister and it's against the rules ... it just feels wrong, it is unethical and blatant disregard of the rules," said another former staff member.
Multiple former employees said they saw Khatri hide in a spare office when members of the public came in. They said Khatri was worried that a volunteer or constituent might recognize her as Ratansi's sister.
Sources also said Khatri instructed some employees to make sure she wasn't photographed at public events — unless she was attending as a family member rather than as Ratansi's constituency assistant.
"You might not like it, but you're bound to sort of keep that secret, or else," said one former staffer. "We were forced to, as staff members, to basically be complicit in unethical behaviour … it hurts to basically choke that down and not say anything."
Other staffers claim they were kept in the dark. One former employee said they believed the pair were not related and, when told that Ratansi and Khatri are siblings, said "the wool was pulled over my eyes."
As of Monday, Khatri was still listed as Ratansi's constituency assistant on the government's online directory. More than 24 hours after CBC News asked Ratansi for comment, her Liberal website had been taken down.
'It's a hard day' says government whip
Chief government whip Mark Holland said he was not aware of the issue until contacted by CBC News on Monday. He said the House rules are clear and it's "essential they be respected."
"We try to have rigorous systems and processes but clearly this was not caught and now it has to go to the ethics commissioner to figure out what the appropriate restitution is," he told CBC News.
"It's a hard day. I was elected in 2004 with Yasmin, so it's a very difficult day. But I think taking responsibility for her lapse in judgment, stepping away from caucus … these are the right steps."
Chris MacDonald, an associate professor who teaches business ethics at the Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, says there are good reasons why the public frowns on nepotism and expects public figures to hire on merit.
He said the claim that Ratansi covered up her sister's hiring is more troubling than the hiring itself. He said it suggests a guilty mind and an attempt to keep information from constituents and voters.
"Once there is an attempt to cover it up, then it makes it pretty clear that even the person doing the hiring realizes there's something fishy here," he said.
"If these allegations are true, it's a disturbing picture of abuse of power, of a misuse of a position that involves trust and public resources."