Premier should have cleared letters to Alta. companies with conflict commissioner first: expert

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An expert in political ethics says if Saskatchewan's premier had consulted him, he would have advised Brad Wall to avoid sending letters of invitation to Alberta oil companies in which he has personally invested. 

Last month, Wall sent letters to eight Alberta companies, pitching them on the idea of moving their head offices to Saskatchewan. He offered tax breaks, coverage of relocation expenses, low-cost rent in government buildings, and "help with other hurdles as you define them and as can reasonably be offered."

Wall owns shares in three of those Alberta companies.

"The perception of him sending that letter when he owns shares in those companies, that's enough to make me say, 'Don't do that,'" said Ian Stedman, a lawyer who teaches political ethics at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University.

"That looks bad."

Consult commissioner first, not after-the-fact

On Friday, CBC News inquired about Wall's investment in companies he was trying to lure to to the province. That prompted his officials to ask the province's conflict of interest commissioner, Ron Barclay, for his opinion. 

In a written opinion, Barclay cleared Wall of conflict.

Stedman said the fact Wall asked for the commissioner's opinion after he wrote the letters reminds him of the saying "it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission."

He said Wall, a longtime politician, should have thought about the optics of this and sought that opinion first.

"He should know that at this point. That's just doing your due diligence," said Stedman.

Wall facing dilemma, says Stedman

Stedman said after having reviewed the opinion of Saskatchewan's conflict of interest commissioner, it's clear the situation put Wall in an interesting dilemma.

He notes Saskatchewan's conflict of interest law says a politician is in a conflict if they take part in a decision while knowing "that in the making of the decision there is the opportunity to further his or her private interest."

In other words, if Wall proposes that an oil company in which he owns shares would become more valuable by moving to Saskatchewan, and thereby more valuable to the company's shareholders, that would put him in a conflict of interest.

Stedman broke the dilemma down like this:

- "If he's sending these offers, then he's trying to convince them that it would be good for their company to move here.

- "And if it would be good for their company, then it would be good for their share price.

- "And if it would be good for their share price, then he has to be attentive to the fact that he owns shares in them.

- "And that's a conflict because Section 3 [of the conflict of interest law] says don't participate in a decision that could possibly impact your personal financial well being."

Last week, the CEO of one of the companies that received Wall's offer, Grant Fagerheim of Whitecap Resources, said he would only consider the move if it benefited shareholders.

Barclay said none of this is an issue because "there does not appear to be any evidence that such a relocation, if it even occurred, could plausibly increase the share price of the three companies."

The premier's office said it agreed with the commissioner's opinion.

The official said "we think it would be good for the company and the province, but that doesn't necessarily drive the share price up."

CBC asked in what way this move might "be good for the company," if not to its bottom line.

The premier's office said companies make relocation decisions for lots of reasons that don't involve share value, such as "cost of living, affordability of housing, tax levels, etc."

Like Wall, Trudeau didn't ask for permission

Stedman said recent news shows politicians still aren't taking conflict of interest law seriously enough.

As an example, he pointed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's post-Christmas family holiday with the Aga Khan. Trudeau, along with friends and family, vacationed with the billionaire philanthropist on his Bahama island.

But Trudeau didn't clear the trip with the ethics commissioner first. Now the matter is under investigation by the commissioner.

"It seems to be pervasive that even though these laws have been in place for so many years now, our [politicians] still don't know that they have to ask before they do something controversial," said Stedman.

He said this is a learning opportunity for Wall.

"Hopefully, he moves forward and is better able to recognize when he's putting himself in a prickly position like that," said Stedman.

Sask. 'way behind' the rest of the country

Stedman added that when it comes to conflict of interest law, Saskatchewan is "way behind" the rest of the country.

While in this province politicians are allowed to manage their own investment portfolios while in office, "it's generally the case across the country that, with very few exceptions, that ministers and premiers are not allowed to know what their shareholdings are."

He said both federally and in many provinces, politicians "either have to sell [their shares] when they take office or take their position, or they have to put them in a blind trust."

And he said it's difficult to change these laws because they apply directly to the lawmakers.

"So, you have to convince them to make their lives more difficult: pass new legislation that makes your life more difficult; and gives you less control over your financial life so the rest of the public can have more confidence in the way you're doing your job."

Stedman said it usually takes a scandal for that sort of change to happen.