Incoming PMO chief Nigel Wright fends off conflict-of-interest questions

November 2, 2010

Nigel Wright was not going to allow the opposition to tell him that his former job with one of the country's major private-equity firms disqualifies him from working as chief of staff to the Prime Minister.

For more than an hour on Tuesday, Mr. Wright calmly and confidently fielded questions from MPs, repeatedly explaining it is the Conflict of Interest Commissioner who will dictate when government information must be kept from him to prevent a potential conflict of interest.

Mr. Wright said he is willing to abide by an "ethical wall" established by a secretary to the cabinet that will bar him from participating in discussions or decisions related to Onex Corp. or its many holdings that run the gamut from aerospace to health care to movie theatres to pizza.

"I don't expect issues to arise very frequently," he said, explaining that in his years at Onex, there were few times when he had to deal with government matters.

Mr. Wright surprised MPs by telling them that Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a man "whose values align with mine in every conceivable way," had recruited him in March to fill his office's top job after the departure of Guy Giorno, who leaves next month. The announcement that Mr. Wright had been hired was not made until late September.

He said he began working with Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson in April to ensure that conflicts of interest would be avoided and, during the summer, she recommended that he erect an "ethical wall."

That wall requires his immediate underling, Derek Vanstone, to keep from Mr. Wright all information that could touch upon Onex and its holdings. Mr. Vanstone must also shield him from a brief list of subjects, including the aerospace manufacturing industry, with which he was deeply involved.

But opposition MPs remained unconvinced.

Mr. Wright, who is on temporary leave from Onex will, in all likelihood, eventually return to his position with the Bay Street company. Carole Freeman, a Bloc MP, said he will go back to the private sector with an unfair knowledge of government business. "You can't ignore everything that you have heard and read and learned," she said.

And several MPs, including Liberal Carolyn Bennett, asked whether Mr. Wright could even take part in discussions about the budget, given its broad scope and the number of issues, like taxation, that could have an impact on Onex.

But Mr. Wright explained that he will not have to recuse himself from broad issues - only those that touch on Onex in a direct way or that are specified by the Ethics Commissioner.

In defending Mr. Wright's appointment, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre said to prevent him from discussing broad subjects only tangentially related to Onex would be akin to preventing MPs who are farmers from voting on agricultural bills.

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