Gifts given to Pickering Councillors in March deemed not enough for investigation

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Published August 24, 2023 at 11:07 am

Pickering Councillor Lisa Robinson (red dress) is one of four Councillors accused of accepting gifts exceeding the allowable limits. Photo Glenn Hendry

More than $5,000 in Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors tickets given to four Pickering Councillors in March was a breach of the City’s Code of Conduct but is not egregious enough to warrant a full investigation, says a report from Pickering’s Integrity Commissioner.

Pickering resident Anthony Yacub filed a complaint against Lisa Robinson, Linda Cook, Mara Nagy and Shaeen Butt, alleging the councillors accepted Leafs and Raptor tickets and gala passes in March of this year that exceeded the allowable limit of $500 each.

Robinson, in particular, is alleged to have accepted gifts totalling $3,350 that month, with the other three cited for accepting $600 in free tickets each.

Pickering Mayor Kevin Ashe was also named in the complaint but no monetary figure was mentioned.

Yacub’s petition asked that the council members “pay back what they owe, remove the perceived conflict-of-interest, and hold themselves to a higher standard” but Principles Integrity, which acts as Pickering’s Integrity Commissioner, said the “technical breach” of the gift policy “does not in the circumstances warrant an investigation and public report.”

The response to Yacub also said training provided June 26 will “encourage better adherence” to the Code of Conduct’s Gifts policy and “more diligence” by members of Council in providing accurate and timely Disclosure Statements.

“We note as well that it is open to members of Council to amend or revise their Disclosure Statements at any time,” adding that both the original and the revised versions would be considered if a full investigation were to be conducted.

“We believe that there is now a much better understanding of the proper application of the Gifts policy which, coupled with the recent adoption of the Lobbyist Registry By-law and Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct, should result in improved compliance by members of Council without the need for a full investigation and a public report,” Principles Integrity’s letter to Yacub read. “Future incidences of non-compliance may however require a different path.”

“We also believe that your complaint serves to remind them of the need to hold themselves to the high standards of the Code, and that their actions and conduct are being observed by others.”

The letter stated that the office of the Integrity Commissioner will be taking “no further action” and will be closing the file in respect of the complaint.

The Integrity Commissioner said the initial review of the complaint supported Yacub’s assertion that some members of Council have accepted gifts which did exceed – “albeit only nominally in some cases” -the values set out in the Code provision.

“One member in particular appeared to have been acting on erroneous advice that led them to circumvent proper reporting.”

Members involved have “expressed regret” at having accepted gifts in excess of the allowable maximum, and some have offered to contribute to a charity for the amount by which the gift exceeded the amount allowable, the letter stated, adding that the practice is not recommended “as a form of correcting or a penance for a contravention” but is not prohibited under the City’s Council Code of Conduct.

“Notwithstanding the apparent breach of the Code’s limits, we believe that a more robust understanding of the proper application of the Code provisions will lead to improved compliance and greater transparency. Education and training are often the most effective methods to achieve course correction.”

“We think training can more effectively resolve the matter by placing all members of Council and staff on a level playing field of collective understanding.”

The General Rules on Gifts and Benefits states that council members shall not accept any gift “intended to influence,” though there some grey areas when gifts are received – and reported – at an event the Council member attends for a “legitimate municipal purpose.”

In any case, the maximum allowable monetary value of any gift is $500 from any single source during a 12-month period, with a full disclosure statement expected within 30 days.

Members often receive gifts and benefits in the course of their duties and attendance at public functions is expected and considered a legitimate part of their role. The object of this rule, the Integrity Commissioner said, is not to prohibit members from participating in events in their community, but rather to” provide transparency” around the receipt of incidental gifts “where the total value may be perceived as potentially influencing decision-making.”

The letter also spelled the responsibilities of the lobbyist, citing a key recommendation of the Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry and Toronto External Contracts Inquiry (2005) that declared that “no lobbyist should ever practice influence peddling” and that Councillors and staff “should not risk compromising their positions by accepting any benefits of any kind from lobbyists.”

“Influence peddling includes giving gifts, buying meals, entertaining, bestowing favours, trading secrets, or taking any other steps with a government official to attempt to create a relationship of personal obligation. This is the heart of misconduct for a lobbyist.”

Entertainment-based influence and relationship building have no place in lobbying the public sector, the inquiry report added. “Entertainment- or favour-based relationship building does absolutely nothing to advance the public interest. It undermines public trust in the independence of public sector decision making, and therefore it has no legitimate role to play.”

A 2015 report to Toronto Council (On an Inquiry Into Placing Members of Council in an Apparent Conflict of Interest) by Lobbyist Registrar Linda L. Gehrke spells out influence peddling quite clearly:

The practice of giving benefits, favours, or entertainment to staff or councillors can sometimes be subtle and indirect. A lobbyist might invite a member of staff to a friendly dinner. Vendors’ associations and commercial interests of all kinds organize ‘information nights’ or other forms of social contact with elected officials and staff involving meals or entertainment paid for by vendors. Such an event might be a boat cruise, the opening night of a hot new play or musical in town, a sports event, a concert, or a golf tournament. Elected officials and staff may be sorely tempted to accept such treats at a lobbyists or commercial supplier’s expense. But this would be wrong, and staff and councillors alike should decline these invitations.

Commercial suppliers and lobbyists who spend money on entertainment events for public servants expect an eventual return on their investment. They hope for influence. This practice, however, amounts to using favours or benefits to acquire influence. It is an inappropriate lobbying practice in the public sector, and as such should neither be offered by lobbyists or vendors nor be accepted, if offered, by councillors or staff.

The responsibility to stop these practices lies primarily with government officials, both councillors and staff. They should decline these types of invitations, explain why, and put forward policies that discourage lobbyists and vendors from offering favours or benefits as part of their public sector strategies. Lobbyists and businesses, for their part, should respect and abide by these imperatives. They should devise alternative ways of promoting their products or ideas that focus on the merits of the product or the idea itself, rather than on lavish dinners or professional sports events.

Pickering is also participating in a project established by the Region’s municipal clerks to recommend revisions to the Codes of Conduct of their respective municipalities, including the clarification gift receipt responsibilities and additional training when the recommendations come forward.

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