OTTAWA - The ethics controversy swirling around Prime Minister Stephen Harper's chief of staff deepened Wednesday with news that Nigel Wright was lobbied on three separate occasions by a company with which he had deep personal connections.
The belated disclosure by Barrick Gold Corp. (TSX:ABX) that it lobbied Wright a third time in May undermines the Harper government's official defence of the prime minister's right-hand man.
According to the website of the federal lobbying commissioner, Barrick submitted a report of its May 29 conversation with Wright on Monday — the same day The Canadian Press contacted the company about earlier discussions it had with Wright on May 14 and May 25.
Under lobbying rules, the report on all three meetings should have been submitted by June 15. Barrick reported the first two conversations on July 30.
Barrick spokesman Andy Lloyd said all three reports were actually submitted on July 30 but the third did not show up on the lobbying commissioner's website until Monday "due to a technical issue." The initial delay in filing all three reports was related to the registration of the company's new CEO as the senior executive responsible for the matter, he added.
On Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Wright had done nothing wrong. He said Wright merely listened to Barrick's concerns, said nothing, turned the matter over to others responsible for the file and was not involved in any decision relating to Barrick.
"I don't think there's any conflict of interest or plausible conflict of interest there," Baird said. "They raised their point of view, he made no comments and did not respond and the issue was put to those who are responsible."
Wright took Barrick's first call "to find out what they were calling about," Baird said. The second call, he noted, included Harper's foreign policy adviser, Andrea van Vugt, and his principal secretary, Ray Novak, the prime minister's point man on government-to-government relations.
Baird confirmed Barrick called to discuss repercussions from Harper's performance at the Summit of the Americas in April, where he angered the government of Argentina by blocking a resolution on that country's claim to the Falkland Islands.
Barrick operates a mine in Argentina and is developing another controversial open-pit gold and silver mine that straddles the border between Argentina and Chile.
Baird did not explain why Wright was involved in the second call if he'd already determined he had nothing to say on the matter. Nor did he mention the third call, which involved only Wright, according to Barrick's latest lobbying report.
Wright, he insisted, has no personal or financial interest in Barrick.
Charlie Angus, the NDP's ethics critic, said Baird's explanation doesn't hold water considering Barrick called Wright a third time — after he had supposedly said nothing during the first two calls and handed off the matter to others.
"It seems borderline ridiculous, his explanation," Angus said in an interview.
"He was lobbied not once, not twice, but three times ... Mr. Baird says it was a one-way conversation. Was Mr. Wright a stenographer? Was he too shy to break in? Was he just taking notes?
"Why was he in (subsequent) meetings if he was not involved?"
Baird's explanation also misinterprets the Conflict of Interest Act, Angus argued.
The issue, he said, is not whether Wright has a personal financial stake in Barrick, but whether his involvement in the discussions with Barrick could have helped further the financial interests of his friends at the company.
Wright has known Barrick founder and board chairman Peter Munk for years and is particularly close to his son, Anthony, who sits on Barrick's board. Wright is godfather to Anthony Munk's son and worked with him at Onex Corp. (TSX:OCX), the private equity giant from which Wright has taken a leave of absence to work for Harper.
"He's not there as a decision maker," Angus said of Wright. "He's there as the prime minister's adviser."
"There was a $5-billion (mining) deal which was up in the air, thanks to Mr. Harper's diplomatic skills, and it's obvious Barrick would have had a reason for wanting to be heard. But they had a fast track and that's not supposed to be in the rules."
Baird has said he ultimately was responsible for dealing with the issue raised by Barrick and that there was no change in Canada's refusal to recognize Argentina's claim to the Falklands.
Baird was also lobbied directly on the matter by Barrick on May 16.
Federal ethics watchdog Mary Dawson has spoken to Wright about his involvement in Barrick's lobbying efforts. She is continuing to consider the matter, according to a spokesperson.