Last week, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner chose not to investigate CRTC chair Ian Scott over his infamous private beers meeting with Bell CEO Mirko Bibic.
There has been some misreporting over what this ruling did and did not find. How commissioner Mario Dion came to his decision is also concerning. On both counts, it’s important to set the record straight.
This narrow decision hinges on Dion’s interpretation of the word “friend,” and the fact that he simply took Scott at his word that he and Bibic are not friends. As per the decision:
“Based on Mr. Scott's description of his relationship with Mr. Bibic as one which has remained exclusively professional despite having worked in the same industry for over two decades, I found that the relationship could not be considered as one that falls within the definition of friends within the meaning of the Act. Therefore, I no longer had any concerns that Mr. Scott may have furthered the private interests of a friend, or improperly furthered those of Bell Canada, whose Chief Executive Officer was a friend, when he participated in the May 2021 Telecom Decision.”
The decision in question, of course, is the CRTC’s reversal of a previous 2019 ruling that would have significantly lowered wholesale internet rates to the benefit of smaller service providers such as TekSavvy and millions of Canadian consumers.
Bibic and Bell benefited from that reversal, and the beers meeting at an Ottawa pub in December 2019 took place just days after the company had filed its appeal of the rates decision. But, because Bibic was not “friends” with Scott, no further investigation is necessary. Case closed.
Dion’s decision, however, does not clear Scott of any wrongdoing, as some media outlets have reported. Anyone who has seen the photo of Scott and Bibic together – see above – understands that the wrongness is self-evident.
As The Globe and Mail plainly states in an editorial reaction to Dion’s report, there must be distance between the regulator and the regulated. They cannot be having friendly beers together, regardless of what the legal definition of their relationship is. They should not be as close as Scott, a former Telus lobbyist, has been with Canada’s big telecom companies over the course of his five-year tenure.
How Dion came to his decision is also concerning. The commissioner spoke to Scott and Scott alone. Dion notes in his report that he was concerned about how a Toronto Star headline, published in February, referred to the CRTC chair and Bibic as friends. Scott’s response to Dion was that he didn’t use the word “friends,” but rather the Star did.
Dion did not speak with the reporter who wrote the article in question for his assessment of the relationship. Scott also did not object to the Star’s use of the word “friend” and did not seek a correction, nor did he correct Member of Parliament Nathaniel Erskine-Smith during an Industry Committee hearing, also in February, when he referred to Bibic as the chair’s friend.
His first and only objection to the characterization seems to have come half a year later, only when the Conflicts commissioner came calling. That alone should have been enough to prompt Dion to do more than simply ask Scott if he was guilty of a conflict of interest. We’re not sure why he didn’t.
Nevertheless, this isn’t an investigation we even asked for. TekSavvy’s original complaint about Scott’s conduct was to the federal Integrity Commissioner, who passed it on to the Conflict of Interest office because of a belief that it may have involved those particular laws.
Our concern was always that Scott had broken the CRTC’s own rules of fairness and neutrality, which is why we hope the Integrity Commissioner will take another look at this case. Scott’s alleged bias is also a key issue in our appeal of the wholesale internet pricing ruling that is being heard by the Federal Court of Appeal.
Scott’s term is scheduled to end next week. It’s important to note at this juncture that the only thing he has been cleared of so far is being official “friends” with Bell’s CEO – and that’s only because he says he isn’t.