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Finance minister pledges to donate money earned from Morneau Shepell shares

Minister of Finance Bill Morneau delivers the fall fiscal update in the House of Commons Tuesday October 24, 2017 in Ottawa.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA - Bill Morneau made further attempts on Thursday to silence accusations that he's personally profited from decisions he's taken as federal finance minister.

He announced he'll donate to charity any gains in the value of his family business' shares since he was elected two years ago.

But that announcement was immediately undercut by news that the federal ethics watchdog is looking into opposition accusations that Morneau was in a conflict of interest when he introduced a pension bill that could benefit Morneau Shepell — his family's pension management and human resources firm in which the minister still owns some $21 million worth of shares.

"Your letter leaves me with concerns in relation to Mr. Morneau's involvement with Bill C-27," ethics commissioner Mary Dawson wrote Thursday in response to a complaint lodged last week by NDP ethics critic Nathan Cullen.

"Consequently, I will follow up with Mr. Morneau and will inform you of the outcome in due course."

Morneau announced last week that he will sell all of his roughly one million shares in Morneau Shepell and put all his other considerable assets in a blind trust.

In a bid to finally spike continuing opposition accusations that his actions as minister could have increased the value of those shares, he went one step further on Thursday. He announced that he will donate to charity the difference in the value of the shares between the date he was elected in 2015 and the day they're sold.

Morneau made the announcement in the House of Commons after meeting with Dawson. He said later that she agreed this additional action was "appropriate."

Morneau said he doesn't know how much his decision will wind up costing him but it could be as much as $5 million.

"Whatever the value is, that's our decision.... My goal is to make sure that I'm doing the work that I came here for," he said outside the Commons.

"For me, the work that I'm doing right now is the most important work that I will ever do and I want to make sure that Canadians have confidence in that work ... Taking these extra steps to give absolute assurance is important."

The announcement did little to quell opposition accusations that Morneau's failure to divest his Morneau Shepell shares or put them in a blind trust when he first took office two years ago put him in blatant conflict of interest.

Cullen quickly labelled the donation "guilt money."

"I think what we saw today was an admission of guilt. From my experience, people don't generally pay a fine or a fee if they're innocent of something," Cullen said.

"He's in a conflict of interest that helped his own personal wealth grow substantially and now he's saying, 'I've got to put some guilt money together and try to buy my way out of this problem.'"

Conservative MP Gerard Deltell similarly said Morneau's announcement "is just proof, without a shadow of a doubt, that he was in a pure, profitable conflict of interest for the last two years and he only act when he's trapped in a corner."

Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre pointed out that the donation will entitle Morneau to claim a charitable tax deduction. He suggested Morneau should donate those tax savings to offset the billions he's added to the federal deficit.

Both opposition parties have zeroed in on Bill C-27, legislation aimed at allowing pension administrators to convert direct benefit pension plans into targeted benefit pension plans — a change for which Morneau Shepell had lobbied.

Cullen said the value of the company's shares went up immediately after the bill was tabled and he estimated that Morneau personally gained $2 million in just five days as a result. He acknowledged there was a "big drop" in the value of the shares subsequently.

Nevertheless, Cullen said the fact that Morneau was regulating an industry in which for two years he's had a personal interest "leaves Canadians in doubt" about his ethics.

Morneau introduced C-27 just over a year ago and it has sat on the Commons order paper ever since. There has been no debate on the bill and no attempt by the government to move it along.

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