Morneau Cleared by Ethics Watchdog

The federal ethics commissioner said Finance Minister Bill Morneau wasn't in a conflict of interest when he introduced a pension bill in the House of Commons while he still owned shares in his family's pension services company.

The opposition benches insisted Morneau could personally benefit from Bill C-27, which seeks to amend the Pension Benefits Standards Act, because he owned shares in Morneau Shepell, a human resources firm, at the time.

In the report released Monday morning, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion outlined how he had to consider whether Morneau contravened two sections of the Conflict of Interest Act that prohibit public office holders from making, or being part of, decisions if they are in a conflict of interest.

"Because Bill C-27 is of general application, Mr. Morneau's interests, those of his relatives, and those of Morneau Shepell Inc. in this matter are excluded from the application of the act," Dion wrote in his decision.

"I found that he did not place himself in a conflict of interest in making decisions leading to the introduction of Bill C-27, therefore he did not contravene ... the Conflict of Interest Act.

Former ethics commissioner Mary Dawson began investigating Morneau's role in the pensions file, but retired before completing the inquiry. Morneau introduced the bill back in October 2016.

Dawson initiated the examination at the request of Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre and NDP MP Nathan Cullen.

Cullen argued that, because Morneau held about one million shares in Morneau Shepell when he sponsored the bill, he could make millions if it passed.

The ethics commissioner's decision to give Morneau a clean bill of health points to a loophole in the ethics laws — the "general application" clause that can let ministers off the hook for decisions they make that affect their own assets — according to the activist group Democracy Watch.

Morneau's tenure as finance minister has been plagued by ethical questions about how he handled his substantial personal assets after coming to government.

In the fall of last year, he was forced to pay a $200 fine for failing to declare a corporation in France that owns a villa.