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Harris cleared of conflict of interest
Complaint sparked by New York weekend
as guest of financier doing business with province

 Thursday, January 21, 1999
RICHARD MACKIE
Queen's Park Bureau

Toronto -- Premier Mike Harris was not in a conflict-of-interest position when he stayed with friends in New York who took him to dinner and a Broadway show, Ontario Integrity Commissioner Robert Rutherford has ruled.

However, he also said that there could be a "perception" of a conflict, which it is not his responsibility to judge. "Perception is for the electorate. The Office of the Integrity Commissioner deals with the facts."

The commissioner was responding to complaints by New Democratic Party Leader Howard Hampton and by Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty that Mr. Harris had put himself in a conflict-of-interest position by accepting the hospitality in New York of Steve Hudson, head of Newcourt Credit Corp. Inc.

Newcourt Credit specializes in financing large infrastructure deals and equipment purchases and often finances government projects, such as highways and hospitals.

The issue was first raised in a story in The Globe and Mail on Nov. 17, which resulted in the complaints to the Integrity Commissioner.

The complaints noted that Attorney-General Charles Harnick also had accepted the hospitality of another Newcourt Credit official, David Sharpless, for the same weekend in New York.

Newcourt was promoting the return to Broadway of the Stratford Festival after an absence of 40 years. Both Mr. Harris and Mr. Harnick said this was their reason to attend as private citizens interested in the success of the festival.

Mr. Rutherford, a former judge with the Ontario Court's General Division, said the explanations by the two men satisfied him.

"They were circumspect in maintaining a distance between their personal relationships and their official duties and accepted the invitations to attend in New York City for a weekend, on the condition that they pay their own expenses," the commissioner wrote.

Based on letters from both men, the commissioner found that they "each have a long-standing personal relationship with an official of a company which conducts business with the province of Ontario.

"From time to time, it can be expected that their public duties may coincide with their private interests. The balancing of those interests can be very difficult and perception may become an issue."

The commissioner also cautioned that newspaper reports are not evidence that a conflict of interest exists. He noted that the complaints submitted by Mr. Hampton and by Mr. McGuinty, which referred to a report in The Globe, were "not supported by an affidavit by the journalist who wrote the article."

He added: "News reports are a journalist's opinion derived from sources which may or may not be accurate. The credibility of the information provided by the journalist is unknown and credibility becomes an issue, hence 'perception' becomes an issue."

Mr. Hampton said he was disappointed but not surprised by the ruling. He said it shows that "we do not have clear guidelines in cases like this where the Premier and members of cabinet are being wined and dined by corporate leaders who have a direct interest in decisions made by this government."

Mr. Hampton questioned the argument that Mr. Harris and Mr. Hudson are personal friends. "Does anyone think that Steve Hudson is really interested in Mike Harris for his scintillating conversation?"


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Copyright © 1999 The Globe and Mail