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Lobbying commissioner clears Rob Silver, who is husband of PM's chief of staff

OTTAWA — Rob Silver, the husband of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief of staff, has been cleared of any wrongdoing by the federal lobbying commissioner.

Nancy Belanger says Silver spent about 70 minutes cumulatively talking to public office holders about two different emergency aid programs on behalf of mortgage finance company MCAP.

She says MCAP staff put in another two hours of preparation time for those discussions.

Belanger concludes the "low volume and short duration" of Silver's communications fall "well short" of the threshold that would have required MCAP or Silver to register their lobbying activities.

Belanger's findings Thursday mark the second time Silver has been cleared of opposition parties' allegations of misconduct involving pandemic aid programs.

Last September, federal ethics commissioner Mario Dion dismissed Conservative allegations of conflict of interest against Silver and his wife, Katie Telford. He called those allegations "speculative" and without "a factual basis to support" them.

At issue for both commissioners were reports that Silver had contacted officials in the Prime Minister's Office and the finance ministers' office about a rent relief program and the wage subsidy program.

Opposition parties pointed to those reports to allege evidence of improper insider access to government programs.

They pointed to the fact that the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation last April awarded MCAP a $56-million contract to administer the federal government’s Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program. Silver took part in a June meeting with CMHC about the program, which was extended in July.

CMHC and the Liberals have said the decision to involve MCAP was made strictly by the Crown agency, with no involvement by the government, Silver or Telford.

Opposition parties also pounced on a report that Silver had contacted one person in the PMO, Mike McNair, and various officials in the finance minister's office to suggest changes to the wage subsidy program, which would have allowed MCAP to be eligible.

Dion concluded that Telford, who had set up a conflict of interest screen to prevent her direct involvement in anything to do with MCAP, was not involved in either case.

In her report, Belanger says Silver contacted her office before joining MCAP in January 2020 to confirm that he should not lobby Trudeau or his office but was not precluded from lobbying other ministers' offices.

While he did subsequently contact McNair about the wage subsidy program, McNair was at the time working on a voluntary basis in the PMO to help out with the pandemic and was, therefore, not a public office holder as defined by the Lobbying Act. McNair referred Silver to the finance minister's office.

Another contact with a PMO official about the rent relief program was strictly to update her about the progress of the program.

The Lobbying Act requires a company to register in-house lobbying activities when communications with public office holders constitute "a significant part" of the duties of its employees, either individually or collectively.

The commissioner has interpreted that to mean the equivalent of 20 per cent or more of the duties of any one employee, including preparation time — about 32 hours over a four-week period.

While Belanger concluded that Silver and MCAP did not do enough lobbying to warrant registering with her office, she said the case demonstrates how difficult it is to determine whether in-house lobbyists are spending "a significant part" of their duties lobbying public office holders.

Moreover, she said, "this threshold allows a substantial volume of in-house lobbying activity to go unreported."

Belanger reiterated her recommendation that the "significant part of duties" provision be removed from the Lobbying Act so that anyone who lobbies for any amount of time would be required to register in future.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2021.

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press

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