Under fire, embattled Morneau commits to finally put assets in blind trust

Embattled Finance Minister Bill Morneau says he plans to put his substantial personal assets in a blind trust, hoping to tamp down an escalating controversy over conflict of interest allegations that have threatened to undermine the federal Liberal government.

Morneau also says the plan is to eventually sell off all of his and his family’s shares in Morneau Shepell, the human resources and pension management firm that bears his name.

The former businessman — who said Thursday he currently owns about a million shares in the company — had insisted he made sure to disclose all his assets to the federal ethics watchdog when he came into office, and he that he followed her recommendations very carefully to avoid any conflicts of interest.

“I perhaps naively thought that following the rules and respecting the recommendations of the ethics commissioner … would be what Canadians would expect,” Morneau told a news conference.

“In fact, what I have seen over the last week is I need to do more.”

When asked what made him change his mind, Morneau acknowledged that the issue has become a major distraction and was taking away from what he characterized as his important work as Liberal finance minister _ work he wants to continue doing.

“We have a process in place in our country that previous finance ministers have used, that all other MPs have used. It’s a process of going to the ethics commissioner and working with her to come up with the best approach in your individual situation,” he said.

“But at a certain stage, we can’t have tin ears. We work for Canadians. I am trying to make sure that we are successfully improving the lives of Canadians across the country, so if we’re getting distracted because some people are worried about my personal situation, it’s time to move on. And that’s what I’ve decided to do.”

Today’s move — aimed at silencing Morneau’s increasingly vocal critics — could also be considered a tacit acknowledgment that the rules themselves are in need of an update, something the ethics commissioner herself has suggested in the past.

Commissioner Mary Dawson said this week she told Morneau a blind trust wouldn’t be necessary, since his shares were indirectly held through private companies and were therefore not considered a “controlled asset” under the Conflict of Interest Act.

However, Dawson urged the previous Conservative government in 2013 to amend the law to require blind trusts for personal assets owned by public office holders, regardless of whether they were directly or indirectly owned — a change that was never made.

Morneau, who had stepped down as Morneau Shepell’s executive chairman shortly after the election, said at the time he expected to put his significant shares into a blind trust, something he repeated Thursday.

A spokeswoman for Morneau Shepell also said that “just prior to leaving the company in October 2015, we understood from Mr. Morneau that his shares were to be placed in a blind trust.” After he left, however, the company was no longer privy to his final decision, Cathren Ronberg wrote in an email.

She added that, at the time of resignation, public filings showed he owned 2,254,109 shares in Morneau Shepell. Public records also show he held the vast majority of those shares through an Alberta numbered company.

Morneau, however, said he owns only about 1 million shares — shares that have a current value of around $21 each.

All week long, the Conservatives and New Democrats have accused the government of being in a conflict of interest created by a finance minister regulating an industry that includes a company in which he owns significant shares.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen has called on Dawson to investigate Morneau for spearheading pension reform legislation that could benefit Morneau Shepell and, through shares he still holds, the minister himself.

The allegations have largely drowned out Morneau’s efforts to address another, earlier controversy over the government’s tax-reform proposals.

“Of course, there’s been a distraction this week,” Morneau said during a news conference at a farm in the Ontario community of Erinsville, where he tried to highlight an announcement the government would no longer move forward with a tax change that has angered farmers.

He said Ottawa will reconsider the proposal related to the conversion of income into capital gains after hearing concerns from farmers and fishers. The proposal raised fears about how it could hinder the intergenerational transfer of family business, like farms.

It had been one of the three key components of the government’s package of tax proposals.

Morneau is due back in the House of Commons today after spending the week making announcements to scale back some of the so-called tax reforms, which have angered small business owners, doctors, farmers and even Liberal backbench MPs.

During Morneau’s absence Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was forced to come to his defence during a heated question period, repeatedly stating his minister followed the advice of the ethics commissioner.

Despite being grilled on the matter, Trudeau refused to answer questions about when he found out Morneau’s assets weren’t in a blind trust.

Earlier this week, the government also ditched another proposed measure that would have had a negative impact on the transfer of family businesses from one generation to the next.

Morneau also announced this week that he will scale back a proposal to crack down on passive investment income, which was one of the most contentious elements of his plan.