Amid the litany of key federal Liberals accused of violating the Conflict of Interest Act, International Trade Minister Mary Ng said none of her staffers warned her that awarding contracts to a "close friend" violated ethics laws.
Ng authorized two government contracts totalling $22,000 to the public relations firm Pomp and Circumstance for "media training" in 2019 and again in 2020.
The minister's friend and former Liberal staffer, Amanda Alvaro, founded the firm and received contracts worth $5,840 and $16,950, respectively.
Alvaro volunteered on Ng’s election campaign in 2017 and described the minister as a "dear friend" on social media.
NDP MP Matthew Green appeared surprised during the ethics committee meeting Friday when Ng told him none of her staffers raised a red flag about working with Alvaro in this capacity.
"At what point did you miss this? And did you not, as a minister, have an enhanced education on what would be considered a conflict of interest?" asked NDP MP Matthew Green of Ng.
The trade minister dodged the question and said she considered the contracts "acceptable" as they complied with federal procurement rules but did not mention ethics laws.
Ng repeatedly referenced the ethics commissioner, who said the contract amount, the work done, and the firm hired did not constitute a problem.
She also committed to a conflict-of-interest screen between her and Alvaro and to undergo additional ethics law training, as required by Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion.
In December, Dion determined that Ng broke the law when she failed to recuse herself in awarding two contracts to Alvaro’s company.
"Minister Ng twice failed to recognize a potential conflict of interest involving a friend, an oversight of her obligations under the Conflict of Interest Act," said commissioner Mario Dion in December.
"There is simply no excuse for contracting with a friend’s company. This includes the need to quickly obtain media training services to help Minister Ng respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020," he added.
Despite apologizing for her "mistake" as a one-off instance, Trade Minister Ng faced persistent calls to resign over her ethics breach and reimburse the value of the contracts.
She declined to answer questions from Conservative MPs about whether she would reimburse taxpayers for the contracts.
"No one stole [anything]," she told MP Melissa Lantsman. "What the commissioner found here was that I failed to recuse [myself]."
Alvaro testified after Ng and told MPs that she accepted work from the minister's office for well under market value, citing their friendship.
She claimed her firm did not "need" the work in any way as the contracts represented less than 0.5% of their annual revenue.
Alvaro also told MPs that at no point did she ever wonder if Ng’s involvement in the contracting process could breach ethics laws, as the ethics commissioner did not formally accuse Alvaro or her firm of any wrongdoing.
"It never occurred to me that the work that I would be providing to this minister, similar in nature to work that I had provided to other ministers, would be problematic simply because I knew her better," she said.
Ng described the media training as "helpful" in managing many media requests to help set up emergency COVID business aid programs.
"When you’re faced with a crisis of this magnitude that nobody has ever faced, it’s unprecedented. I think it’s natural that you would reach out to someone you know, and someone you respect and trust, and who you believe unequivocally will get the job done right," added Alvaro.
On Wednesday, Dion recommended all federal ministers and parliamentary secretaries report to his office for training in response to an ethics violation by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's parliamentary secretary on Tuesday.
"Offers to provide training and educational sessions on various topics have been offered to all federal parties and regulatees, yet we continue to see a succession of mistakes largely attributable to the inability to recognize the need to seek consultation," he said.