A Strange Coincidence: Former Tobacco Board Lobbyist Joined Conservative Office As Tobacco Board Buyout Program Implemented?
As you may have heard by now, the Auditor-General is not happy about the fact that the Harper Regime gave over $280 million in subsidies to the Ontario Flue-Cured Tobacco Growers’ Marketing Board to pay off tobacco farmers to kick their habit, so to speak, only to miss the fact that a large number of farmers were pocketing the money, engaging in some creative accounting (something the Ruling Party knows a lot about, I should add), and keeping right on growing tobacco after some dubious “quota transfers”:
- [Tobacco Transition Program] recipients working on their own farm as employees;
- independent children of TTP recipients renting their parents’ land and infrastructure, and obtaining a license to grow tobacco; and
- TTP recipients loaning money to a licensee or co-signing at a bank for a loan for a licensee.
Now, every so often, you can hear Conservative ministers crowing about how their government has made unprecedented advances in making government finances fair and free from the stain of lobbying. The tobacco scandal illustrates why we should look further. You may recall that Harper’s head PR flack during the 2011 election was an Ensight Canada lobbyist named Jason Lietaer. Lietaer is well-connected and his name was bandied about to take Harper’s communications director post last year, and then again earlier this year, after director Dimitri Soudas’s political career was tarnished by allegations (never seriously investigated) that he might be given a bribe in exchange for securing an appointment on the Montreal Port Authority.
After departing from the Ontario Tories, where he was deputy communications director for premier-turned-lobbyist Mike Harris, Lietaer took a job as director of the Tobacco Growers’ Marketing Board. Lobbying records started identifying him as its principal representative beginning in 2004, though Lietaer didn’t register personally until 2006. The stated purpose of his lobbying, according to the commissioner, was “a universal exit program for produces of Ontario flue-cured tobacco” — essentially, the Tobacco Transition Program. At the same time the Board was also employing the Rothwell Group, also for the stated purpose of securing “transition funding.” The Rothwell Group is led by former John Turner aide Mark Resnick and former Mulroney Cabinet minister Leo Duguay.
In 2008, several intriguing things happened very quickly. In February 2008, Lietaer began lobbying for Ensight Canada, the Conservative-connected lobbying-and-polling-research outfit; one of his clients remained the Tobacco Growers’ Marketing Board until at least August 27, 2008.
Second, Lietaer left Ensight temporarily to become the executive director of the Conservative Party’s internal PR and analysis shop, the secretive Conservative Resource Group. The timing of this move is unclear, because the Conservative Resource Group is not a public agency, but the Hill Times reported that he was being succeeded by Garry Keller in October 2009.
Finally, and most importantly, in July 2008, according to the Auditor-General, Agriculture Canada began working out the framework for the tobacco buyout, which was announced just one month later, and for which the funding agreement was formally signed early the next year (an extremely rapid turnaround for a nearly $300 million gift to tobacco farmers). Without betraying any sense of understatement, the Auditor-General calls this “a short time frame.”
I honestly don’t know what did or didn’t happen behind the scenes. But what it looks like to me is that a Tobacco Marketing Board lobbyist took a job heading up the public relations and policy nerve center of the ruling party at just about the same time that the government decided to rush through an almost $300 million buyout program, with the money being channeled through that very same Marketing Board.
It’s not easy to find out who leads the secretive Conservative Resource Group, but there appears to be a revolving door between the CRG and the lobbying sector. In September 2007, fuel lobbyist Kory Teneycke left the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association and became the director of the CRG. From there he moved to the Prime Minister’s Office in July 2008, the same time that Lietaer seems to have stopped lobbying for Ensight. In the meantime Lietaer moved in as executive director of the Conservative Resource Group, and was there for about a year. He was replaced by Garry Keller in October 2009, when Keller became an aide to minister John Baird. Keller was followed by Dan Robertson; he now works at the Crestview lobbying firm, alongside Michael Donison, one of the Conservative insiders who was charged in the “in and out” laundering scandal. Robertson’s replacement is Martin Belanger.Tweet