Justin Trudeau admits he used Aga Khan's private helicopter, a potential violation of federal law
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with the Aga Khan on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 17, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Justin Trudeau admitted on Thursday that he used the Aga Khan’s private helicopter to get around the Bahamas when he vacationed with the billionaire philanthropist and spiritual leader, an apparent violation of federal law and his own rules.
The National Post asked the prime minister to describe how he travelled from Nassau — the Bahamanian capital where Trudeau and his family landed in an RCAF Challenger executive jet on Boxing Day — to Bell Island, which is about 115 kilometres south over open ocean, after a Conservative MP asked a parliamentary watchdog to investigate Trudeau’s travel arrangements.
On Monday, it was Conservative MP Andrew Scheer, asking Mary Dawson, Parliament’s Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, to determine if Trudeau was violating federal laws when he accepted the hospitality of the Aga Kahn at Bell Island, the Bahamas. The Aga Khan is the director and chairman of an organization in Canada that is registered under federal law to lobby the federal government for foreign aid money.
Federal laws set out strict rules for the interaction of public office holders, like the prime minister, and lobbyists.
On Wednesday, though, Conservative MP Blaine Calkins filed a second complaint with the Dawson’s office, based on reporting done by the National Post.
Calkins asked Dawson to investigate Trudeau’s travel arrangements from Nassau to Bell Island.
As prime minister, Trudeau is forbidden under the federal Conflict of Interest Act from flying in any private or chartered aircraft — unless he has permission in advance from the Conflict of Interest Commission, unless there are exceptional circumstances, or unless he is required to do so in his capacity as prime minister.
Trudeau described the trip on Tuesday as “a family vacation.”
Howard Anglin, a lawyer who played a senior role advising former Prime Minister Stephen Harper on conflict-of-interest compliance, said Wednesday there is no interpretation of the Conflict of Interest Act that would permit the Trudeaus to accept flights on the Aga Khan’s private helicopter.
“Absolutely verboten,” Anglin said in an interview Wednesday. “Those are black-and-white rules.”
The archipelago where the Aga Khan’s island exists has been described as the “Hamptons of the Bahamas.” Islands or parts of islands are owned by the likes of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, tech giant Larry Ellison, pop star Shakira, movie stars Eddie Murphy, Mel Gibson and Nicolas Cage.
While it is possible to to take a four- or five-hour chartered boat ride to the Aga Khan’s island, sources in the Bahamas told the Post Wednesday that everyone who owns properties in the area uses private helicopters or small planes.
There is no landing strip on the Aga Khan’s island for a plane though there is one at smaller island a few kilometres to the south of Bell Island.
On Wednesday, the Post reported that Trudeau was joined on his family vacation by Liberal MP Seamus O’Regan and his husband and by Liberal Party President Anna Gainey and her husband.
O’Regan, in an interview Tuesday night, said he and his husband, Stelios (Steve) Doussis made the journey from Nassau to Bell Island using the Aga Khan’s private helicopter, a flight that took about 40 minutes. O’Regan referred questions about Trudeau’s mode of transport to the PMO.
O’Regan was there for a week and disclosed the circumstances of his travel to the Conflict of Interest Commissioner when he returned to Canada.
The PMO has not said if Trudeau has had any communication with the commissioner’s office about this vacation.
Others — parliamentarians and experts in the field of parliamentary ethics and conflicts of interest — are surprised at the sloppy way Trudeau’s office handled the trip to Bell Island.
“Being offered a private vacation on someone’s private island is not something that happens all the time,” Scheer said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Regina. “It just seems like ethical guidelines are not top of mind in the PMO right now.”
Those experts — Anglin is among them but others, speaking on background echoed his view — say the trip should have raised red flags within Trudeau’s office when it was in the planning stages and that his legal advisors should have sought the advice and pre-clearance from Dawson’s office before he and his family headed south.
“I am very surprised,” Anglin said. “There are red flags all over it. Whether those red flags can be explained away or dealt with is a different matter. But there’s enough red flags there that he’d want to have the ethics commissioner’s blessing (before travelling).”