Saturday, April 19, 2014

No Charges Doesn't Mean Wright Is Clean

On Friday, we learned that the RCMP will not be laying charges against Nigel Wright for writing a cheque to Mike Duffy in the amount of some $90,000 and change. 

The CPC, and the PMO, seem to think that this is some kind of exoneration.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The RCMP only lays charges when they have evidence of criminal activity that is sufficiently solid to have a "reasonable expectation of conviction".  If for any reason, the evidence is insufficient to meet that bar, charges are not laid.

In no respect does this mean that what Nigel Wright did was right, nor does it mean that his actions as the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff are either morally or or ethically acceptable.  They may even include a violation of one or more laws in this country, but the RCMP has not turned up enough evidence to be able to have a reasonable chance of conviction.  

Frankly, I have never been convinced that Mr. Wright's actions were criminal per se.  Questionable in their motives, to be certain, but not necessarily illegal.  

However, to say that Mr. Wright's actions were justified simply because charges weren't laid is to ignore the subtle distinction between unethical behaviour and criminal activity.  We have enough of the e-mails that Mr. Wright sent to know that he had made the payment in an effort to make a political problem "go away", and there was little if any love for Mr. Duffy involved.

Ethically, Mr. Wright's actions speak to a man whose idea of solving problems like Mr. Duffy is to throw money at it and hope that it goes away for good.  While not exactly illegal, certainly dubious.  Mr. Wright action in writing a cheque to Mr. Duffy constitutes a political act - one intended to remain in secret so that a political problem could be washed away.  

Obviously, if the $90,000 had come out of the PMO budget, it would of course be a gross misuse of government funds.  Similarly, we know that the Conservative Fund had also refused to underwrite Mr. Duffy's expenses.  In both cases, the bodies involved recognized that using funds available to support Mr. Duffy would have significant consequences if they ever got made public.  

So, Mr. Wright agrees to write Mr. Duffy a cheque for $90,000 from his own bank account, on the proviso that it is kept secret.  At the very least, Mr. Wright's actions fail to meet the test of openness.  We all grew up learning that if we couldn't tell our mothers about what we were doing, we probably shouldn't be doing it.  In Mr. Wright's case, he didn't feel that he could tell the public about it.  

In short, he knew perfectly well that he was covering up something which the public as a whole would view as inappropriate.  From a simple perspective, Mr. Wright's actions would fall into the category that most people would consider unethical.  

Looking at it from a somewhat more business-oriented perspective, the need for a degree of secrecy in a deal such as this seems suspect as well.  Confidentiality is perfectly reasonable in a myriad of business propositions.  However, confidentiality when it is a tool used to cover up even more questionable dealings (such as Mr. Duffy's reasons for abusing expenses, or even his eligibility to sit as a Senator), is generally seen as a violation of reasonable business ethical practices.  Under the terms of the Sarbanes-Oxley act, such deeds in the United States actually carry significant legal penalties with them if they should be discovered.

If Mr. Wright's acts are not criminal per se, they are certainly unethical.  If the ethical bar in Ottawa is now the "It's not a crime, therefore it's okay" (AKA "The Rob Ford Defence"), then it is truly a low bar to meet.  Canadians should rightly demand better of our politicians and their staffs than this.

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