NDP accuses Tories of bending rules on $1-million grant for Baird associate

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley personally approved $1-million in funding for a Jewish community centre in Markham, Ont., shown on May 9, 2012, even though her officials determined the application did not meet the criteria for a federal program aimed at making facilities wheelchair accessible. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said he was simply helping out a constituent when he advocated for a $1-million social hall grant submitted by an Ottawa rabbi who describes the minister as a dear friend.

But the NDP says the grant is another example of how Conservative ministers are willing to bend the rules when handing out taxpayer cash.

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Mr. Baird responded to questions Friday in the House of Commons from NDP MP Manon Perreault, who uses a wheelchair, asking why the Conservative government overruled public servants in awarding a $1-million accessibility program grant toward a project submitted by the Canadian Federation of Chabad Lubavitch.

“Let me be very clear. I had a constituent approach my office asking for support of a project to help people with disabilities. I was very happy to inform my colleague, the Minister of Human Resources Development, that this organization does good work,” Mr. Baird said.

“That was the extent of any involvement that I had. Members of Parliament from all sides of the House regularly represent their constituents. Good for them. That’s their job and that’s their responsibility.”

The Globe and Mail reported Thursday that, after speaking with Mr. Baird, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley personally approved the project even though her officials concluded it failed to meet the criteria for funding and had “a number of deficiencies.”

In the end, Ms. Finley decided to include the project in a group of only five out of 355 applications that received funding under the Enabling Accessibility Fund for mid-sized projects.

The project will be in Markham, in the riding held by Environment Minister Peter Kent. The application was submitted by Rabbi Chaim Mendelsohn, on behalf of the national umbrella organization for Chabad Lubavitch. While Rabbi Mendelsohn described the Foreign Affairs Minister as a “dear friend,” Mr. Baird’s spokesman, Joseph Lavoie, says the friendship is professional, not personal.

NDP MP Paul Dewar told reporters the government’s decision isn’t fair to the dozens of other projects that scored higher in government screening.

“What’s the point of having rules?” he asked. “This isn’t about ministers being able to do work or MPs being able to do work. It’s about following the rules. And with this government the rules are fluid, flexible and work for them and not necessarily for Canadians.”

Duff Conacher of the citizens advocacy group Democracy Watch says an MP should ask the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner to investigate whether codes of conduct were broken.

He added that the rules need to be clearer on whether a minister can do things as an individual MP that would be not be appropriate for a minister. “This line is not defined,” he said. “In my mind, if you do it for one person, you have to do it for everybody. And they don’t.”

Mr. Conacher said he highly doubts Ms. Finley would have understood Mr. Baird’s intervention as being the actions of an MP.

“I don’t think you can take off your hat as a minister, because everyone knows you’re a minister, including Diane Finley,” he said. “And she would know in fact that you’re one of the ministers closest to the Prime Minister and she wants to stay in cabinet.”

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