OTTAWA – A longtime public servant has been nominated as the new federal ethics watchdog, taking over an office that has become a political lightning rod for investigations into the prime minister and his finance minister.
The Liberal government named Mario Dion, the current head of the Immigration and Refugee Board, as their choice to become the next conflict of interest and ethics commissioner for the House of Commons.
The announcement came after a heated question period Monday during which the Conservatives peppered the government about who would take over from outgoing commissioner Mary Dawson, who is looking into a conflict-of-interest controversy involving Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and some of his top aides sat out the selection process for her replacement because Dawson is investigating whether Trudeau broke ethics rules during a vacation to the Aga Khan’s private island last Christmas.
She is also in the midst of a formal examination of Morneau’s work to introduce pension reform legislation that critics insist will benefit his family human resources company in which he previously owned about $21 million worth of shares. He’s now sold the shares and vowed to put his other considerable assets into a blind trust.
Conservatives have latched onto the issues to question the government’s ethical standards, even calling for Morneau to resign his position.
Dawson was the first and only ethics commissioner the House of Commons has known since the Conservatives created the position in 2007. Her seven-year term was to expire in 2014, but has been renewed temporarily several times.
Dion’s appointment won’t be final until a vote the government hopes to have happen before the end of the year so he can take over in early January.
Prior to his role at the IRB, Dion had served as chairman of the National Parole Board and as the public sector integrity commissioner.
That latter role was not without controversy, however.
Dion found himself in hot water in 2014 after the auditor general found “gross mismanagement” and unwarranted delays in two separate case files in the office of the commissioner, which was the target of repeated complaints after it was established by former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2007.
Auditor general Michael Ferguson identified poor managerial practices, misplaced confidential files and even an instance of a whistleblower being inadvertently identified to the person who was being singled out. Dion responded by saying his office was cracking down on its case file oversight.
Dion is also a former legal adviser to a number of government bodies during his more than 30 years in the civil service. He leaves the IRB as the agency is in the middle of a third-party review of how it handles refugee applications and immigration appeals.
Dion had sought to manage a growing number of applications by speeding up certain elements of case processing. But many of those efforts came ahead of a summer surge of asylum seekers at the border which has overwhelmed the agency’s existing resources.