A former top adviser to former prime minister Stephen Harper is headed to the Supreme Court in an attempt to overturn an influence peddling conviction stemming from an ill-fated attempt to enrich his fiancée through the sale of filtration systems to First Nations suffering from dirty drinking water.
The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments Nov. 3 on the influence peddling conviction against Bruce Carson. The Ontario Court of Appeal in February overturned his 2015 acquittal on the charge and registered a conviction.
Carson appealed to the Supreme Court this past March and asked the high court to reverse the conviction.
Carson was originally charged with influence peddling by the RCMP in 2012. The charge was triggered by an APTN News investigation which began in February 2011 into Carson’s lobbying of federal ministers and bureaucrats on behalf of an Ottawa-based water company looking to sell water filtration systems to First Nations.
The company, H2O Pros, had a side contract with Carson’s then-fiancée Michele McPherson, a former escort who went by the name of Leanna VIP, guaranteeing her a cut of profits from any water filtration sales to First Nations.
Those facts remain undisputed.
At issue before the Supreme Court is whether Carson’s attempts to secure deals with First Nations was the same as doing business with the federal government.
The Ontario Court of Justice acquitted Carson Nov. 17, 2015, after Justice Bonnie Warkentin concluded doing business with First Nations was not the same as doing business with the federal government. Warkentin said the Criminal Code definition of influence peddling, which covers any “transaction of business with or any matter of business relating to the government,” did not include First Nations.
The Ontario Court of Appeal disagreed and ruled Warkentin took too narrow of a view on the law’s wording. In a split decision, the appellate court overturned the acquittal.
“Confining an interpretation of the phrase ‘any matter of business relating to the government’ to transactions to which government is a party would fail to capture the mischief to which (influence peddling) is directed,” wrote the appellate court in its decision.
Carson wants the Supreme Court to restore the original acquittal.
“Using one’s influence to assist in doing business with entities such as First Nations bands, charitable institutions, start-up companies and other which receive government funding or subsidies and over which the government has no control, cannot affect the integrity of the government and should not attract prosecution,” Carson’s lawyer Peter McCann wrote in his factum filed with the Supreme Court.
First Nation bands under the Indian Act are almost completely funded by the federal government and their spending is overseen by federal bureaucrats.
Carson was never able to secure any deals as a result of APTN’s investigation which forced the Harper government to call in the RCMP, the ethics and lobbying commissioners to investigate the Conservative prime minister’s former chief of staff and friend.
The record is clear Carson believed federal politicians and bureaucrats could help him sell water filtration systems to First Nations. From his Calgary perch as the head of the now defunct Canada School for Energy and Environment, which was created by a $15 million grant from Industry Canada, Carson used his extensive gilded Rolodex and set out to convince the Harper government that water filtration systems were the cheap answer to dealing with the water crisis faced by First Nations across Canada.
Between January and March 2011, Carson met with John Duncan, minister of the then-named Aboriginal Affairs department, and Peter Kent, the former environment minister. He also met with the ministers’ staff to “discuss means by which H2O’s water treatment systems could be funded and placed in First Nations communities.”
After Carson was told by federal bureaucrats that the federal government couldn’t directly purchase systems from the Ottawa water company, he wrote the Aboriginal Affairs department in February 2011 about possibly setting up a project with Tyendinaga, a Mohawk community which sits about 200 km east of Toronto.
Carson was also trying to get H2O Pros on a list of vendors compiled by federal and Ontario officials developing a water filtration system pilot project for First Nations. The project was changed after the scandal erupted to make First Nations in charge of the vendor selection process and to exclude systems sold by H2O Pros.
Carson was also trying to leverage his relationship with former Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo and the two famously had a Valentine’s Day dinner with their respective partners at Hy’s, a now shuttered steakhouse that was once a favorite of Ottawa’s political class.
It all came crashing down on Carson after APTN approached the PMO with documented and videotaped evidence that the former Harper aide was trying to use his extensive political contacts to help enrich his fiancée who was guaranteed between 15 and 20 per cent of gross revenues from any sales by H2O Pros to First Nations.
The Harper PMO moved swiftly to sever its ties with Carson. Ray Novak, Harper’s principal secretary, wrote the RCMP, the lobbying commissioner and the ethics commissioner to investigate Carson. A little over a w week after the scandal broke the minority Conservative government fell and the country was plunged into an election.
The Harper Conservatives then went on to win a majority government.
Carson was found guilty on three counts of illegal lobbying and fined $50,000 last year. The charges stemmed from an investigation launched by the RCMP after they seized 50,000 of Carson’s emails as part of the original influence peddling investigation.
Carson is appealing the illegal lobbying conviction.
Watch APTN reporters confront Carson with the findings of their investigation here. Note: There is a 30 second blackout near the beginning.