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Former ambassador MacNaughton did not violate Lobbying Act: commissioner

OTTAWA — Canada's former ambassador to the United States has been cleared of illegally lobbying federal government officials.

OTTAWA — Canada's former ambassador to the United States has been cleared of illegally lobbying federal government officials.

Lobbying Commissioner Nancy Bélanger says David MacNaughton did not violate the Lobbying Act last year when he had dozens of communications with senior officials about government policy and its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bélanger says MacNaughton had 49 communications with federal officials between January and May 2020 and in 31 of them, he offered the pro bono services of his current employer, Palantir Technologies Canada, a data analytics company, in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

But because those communications were short and did not constitute a "significant part" of his work for Palantir, Bélanger says they didn't violate the act.

Last September, ethics commissioner Mario Dion concluded that MacNaughton had violated the Conflict of Interest Act by taking "improper advantage" of his former position.

Dion ordered nine senior officials, including two cabinet ministers, to have no further contact with MacNaughton for one year.

But while the former ambassador's contact with federal officials may not have met ethical standards, it was not sufficient to run afoul of the Lobbying Act.

The act forbids former public officeholders from lobbying the federal government for five years. But it makes an exception for in-house lobbying by someone employed by a corporation, as long as their lobbying activities do not constitute a significant part of their work.

The lobbying commissioner's office has interpreted "significant part" to mean 20 per cent or more of a person's work time, amounting to about 32 hours over a four-week period.

During MacNaughton's highest volume of communications with federal officials between March 22 and April 22 last year, Belanger says he spent just two hours and 35 minutes engaged in such activity. 

"Seen in this light, the low volume and short duration of the communications Mr. MacNaughton had with federal public office holders ... falls well short of the significant part of work threshold and, therefore, well within the scope of the exception set out in (the act)," Bélanger says in a report released Tuesday.

That said, Bélanger reiterated her recommendation that all former public officeholders should be barred from lobbying federal officials for five years, without any exceptions.

She noted that the Lobbying Act makes no exception for former public officials who are employed by an organization other than a corporation. 

"There is no readily apparent explanation in the parliamentary record to justify why the five-year prohibition ought to be applied differently depending on whether a former designated public officeholder engages in in-house lobbying activities on behalf of a corporation rather than an organization," she said.

MacNaughton, who previously co-chaired the federal Liberals' 2015 election campaign in Ontario, served as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's ambassador to Washington from March 2016 to August 2019.

He welcomed Bélanger's finding Tuesday.

"Last spring, as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged all parts of our lives, I did what many Canadians chose to do by putting my hand up to help the government however and wherever possible," MacNaughton said in a statement.

"Palantir Technologies was assisting governments in other countries on a pro bono basis and I wanted to make sure the government of Canada benefited from that as well."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2021.

The Canadian Press