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NDP asks ethics commissioner to investigate Stronach defection

[PoliticsWatch Updated 5:00 p.m. March 10, 2006]

OTTAWA  — The NDP has asked Ethics Commissioner Bernard Shapiro to investigate the conduct of former prime minister Paul Martin for his role in Liberal leadership hopeful Belinda Stronach's defection to the Liberals last spring. 

The NDP request comes exactly a week after Shapiro sparked a showdown with the Prime Minister's Office when he announced a preliminary inquiry into Prime Minister Stephen Harper's role in the defection of Liberal David Emerson to the Tories. 

Both complaints are based on whether the two MPs' cabinet positions are considered a reward or inducement for crossing the floor, something Shapiro said in a past ruling would be a breach of the code of conduct for MPs. 

"It is our opinion that the considerable increase in salary, augmented potential pension, staff and assorted perks enjoyed by members of cabinet, such as a personal car and driver amount to furthering Ms. Stronach's private interests," NDP MP Pat Martin said in a letter to Shapiro. 

The current prime minister appears to be stonewalling Shapiro's probe and his office said last week he was loath to cooperate with the ethics commissioner, who is an independent officer of the House. 

The Tories accused Shapiro of being a Liberal appointee and partisan. 

One of the reasons cited in an e-mail from Harper's communication director was Shapiro's failure to investigate Stronach's floor crossing. 

However, his office did not receive a complaint about the move until Friday. 

With the complaint now in hand, the Tories will be closely watching how Shapiro approaches the two investigations. 

The NDP's Martin told reporters "the parallels between the Emerson affair and the Stronach affair are identical and that Mr. Shapiro in investigating one will now have the licence to comment on the other."

"They're so similar that they just cry out to be dealt with in the same investigation."

Martin said he decided to ask Shapiro to investigate Stronach's defection after receiving e-mails from the public complaining about the NDP letting the Liberals off the hook on Stronach, but complaining about Emerson. 

Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc said Friday that unlike the Conservatives the Liberals would cooperate if Shapiro decides to go ahead with a probe. 

"We respect the institution of the ethics commissioner and if, in his wisdom, he decides to look into whatever matter he choose to be appropriate, we will validate that exercise as opposed to simply attack and denigrate him and his institution."

However, LeBlanc said he did not think the Emerson and Stronach floor crossings were comparable. 

"The differences are well known," he said. "I think frankly (NDP Leader Jack) Layton in that context is a little late for the party. Ms. Stronach has been re-elected as a member for the Liberal party. Mr. Layton has simply decided at the last minute to try to join a very serious debate in a typically irresponsible way."

Stronach told reporters in May that she crossed over to join the Liberals because she was concerned about the Tories toppling the government and forcing an election that would result in a strengthened separatist Bloc Quebecois. 

But the NDP's Martin said he does not buy that story. 

"No one believed Belinda Stronach crossed the floor for any reason other than self promotion and self interest. At least that's the view of an awful lot of Canadians."

Meanwhile, both the NDP and the Liberals criticized the latest attack on Shapiro coming from the Conservative camp. 

In an interview with CTV News that aired Thursday evening, Tory MP Deepak Obhrai blamed one of Shapiro's investigations for contributing to a family crisis that resulted in the suicide of his ex brother-in-law. 

The in-law had accused Obhrai of accepting $40,000 to get him into Canada. Obhrai and the man's wife denied the story and reportedly provided Shapiro with medical and police records to prove he was unstable. 

Obhrai told the network he warned Shapiro not to go ahead with an interview with his in-law or there could be "deadly consequences," advice that Shapiro ignored. 

In the interview, Obhrai also described Shapiro as a "Gestapo chief," a reference to the internal security police force set up in Nazi Germany. 

"The language that has been used by the member is very distressing," said Layton when asked about it by reporters.

"I think he needs to respond, to clarify and to apologize for some of the language that he has used. This is not appropriate for a member of Parliament."

The Liberals held a press conference specifically to demand Obhrai's resignation as the parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs. They alleged that the MP was participating in a Conservative plot to discredit Shapiro. 

"Mr. Obhrai in a completely irresponsible and unfounded way attempted to blame the ethics commissioner for a family tragedy," said LeBlanc. "This simply continues the pattern of personal attacks the Conservatives have used against the ethics commissioner."

But the Prime Minister's Office fought back against the Liberals' allegation that Obhrai was part of an organized attempt to discredit the ethics commissioner. 

"He was speaking on behalf of himself about a very personal, family issue," Sandra Buckler, Harper's director of communications, told PoliticsWatch. 

Buckler pointed out that an all-party House committee censured Shapiro last fall for his handling of the Obhrai investigation. 

"Mr. Obhrai is understandably upset," she said. "Now, the Opposition parties are just playing partisan politics."

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