Bruce Carson Scandal Greased by Harper's Oil Sands Agenda

Taxpayer millions set up PM advisor to push petro interests from U of Calgary. A special Tyee investigation.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 27 Apr 2011 |

Andrew Nikiforuk's "Energy and Equity" column runs (at least) once a week on The Tyee. Read his previous pieces for The Tyee here.

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Harper and Carson: Convicted fraudster carried big files for PM.

[Editor's note: On Nov. 17, 2015, Bruce Carson was found not guilty of the charge of influence peddling in relation to his attempts to promote the sale of H20 Pros' water purification systems. The charges related to EPIC and the University of Calgary are still making their way through the legal system.]

Everyone loves a good political scandal and the Bruce Carson affair squarely fits the bill.

A 66-year-old former senior policy advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper seemingly lobbies the government on behalf of his 22-year fiancée, a former sex worker.

She dresses in sexy lingerie. Newspapers publish lurid photos.

Ottawa talks, yet its busy gossipers recognize Carson as your average political fixer with an active sex life and a couple of criminal convictions.

Everyone that is, except the Prime Minister. Harper, a tough guy on crime, acts appalled and abruptly refers the whole matter to the RCMP.

The scandal seemingly ends.

But that's not the full truth, let alone the real scandal.

In fact, the Bruce Carson affair is a much darker tale about the character of the Harper government and its abuse of the public trust.

And it goes like this: Harper's key political troubleshooter and problem fixer gets lobbied for money for a new university think tank.

He then leaves the Prime Minister's Office and becomes executive director of that same think tank: the Canada School of Energy and the Environment.

It's mostly funded by a $15-million grant from the Harper government.

The former senior advisor alters the school's mandate to permit government lobbying and policy development on the oil sands.

He then lobbies for more federal money, $25 million, and gets it.

He also works for several of his former associates (three cabinet ministers) and directs a joint industry and government campaign to improve the image of the oil sands industry.

With taxpayer dollars he openly runs a partisan Tory energy think tank. He even gives partisan Tory speeches to Tory audiences.

In the end, the school becomes a clearinghouse for industrial energy lobbyists working hand in hand with the federal and Alberta Tory government.

In sum, the PMO's senior advisor appears to have never surrendered his previous political files or his role as a Harper's troubleshooter.

And then the Aboriginal People's Television Network (APTN) runs a sexy story about Carson's fiancée and polluted water and influence peddling (see sidebar).

*But big ethical questions about Harper's role in the larger scandal remain unanswered, including these:

To what degree was Harper or members of his office involved in setting up Carson with a comfortable university job entirely funded by taxpayers' dollars?

Why did the Harper government not begin a conflict-of-interest investigation two years ago when his close friend lobbied the government for more money?

And why was a former government staffer allowed to take advantage of his former high profile position and freely mix and mingle with government officials and cabinet ministers within a year of his leaving office and before "the cooling off" period had ended?

Today The Tyee learned that the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner, Mary Dawson, has commenced an investigation of Carson under the Conflict of Interest Act. In addition to an RCMP investigation, that makes three separate federal inquiries on the activities of Harper's former advisor and confidant. The latest one focuses on matters revealed in this story -- the highly questionable way Carson came to head the Canada School of Energy and the Environment and how he apparently violated ethics rules by actively working with government officials during a so-called "cooling off period."

While various aspects of Carson's dealings have emerged over past weeks in bits and pieces, this in-depth report includes fresh information and perspectives. What surfaces is a tale of industry and government duplicity, conflict of interest, arrogance, breach of public trust, and systemic ethical lapses in the Conservative government.

Carson, concludes Duff Conacher, director of Democracy Watch, is a figure of rich, if oil black, irony. "He exploited the whole political cronyism system that Harper originally attacked and disparaged before forming a government."

A mechanic on campus

Carson, a disbarred lawyer who looks like a pugilist, often described himself as "mechanic," a political fixer who got things done in the messy corridors of power.

As senior policy advisor to Primer Minister Stephen Harper, he oversaw the government's most difficult and contentious files, including climate change, the oil sands and the war in Afghanistan. Associates alternately describe the well-known political fixer as charismatic, paranoid and competent.

"Carson really had the skills of an old political boss. He was the guy who made things happen under the radar and the guy who knows everything," says a former university associate.

According to annual reports for the Canada School of Energy and Environment (CSEE) and Carson's own speeches (many of which have disappeared from the web), the federal government conveniently set aside $15 million for a university think tank dedicated to smart energy research in 2007. It did so after then University of Calgary president Harvey Weingarten and climate change scientist David Keith pitched the idea for an innovative energy think tank directly to Harper's senior policy advisor -- Bruce Carson. (At the time, Carson had been seconded from the PMO to Environment Canada to help put out political fires started by then environment minister Rona Ambrose, a climate change skeptic.)

"Harvey and I went to Ottawa to lobby for the CSEE funding, and you can guess who the key guy to talk to was. It's hard to escape the conclusion that Carson was building himself a soft landing from government," Keith told The Tyee.

A year later, Carson left the Prime Minister's Office. After allegedly conducting an international recruitment search, the University of Calgary appointed Carson as executive director of the school in August 2008. Months later he took two separate leaves of absence to help with the federal election campaign and another to work in the PMO during the so-called prorogation crisis in 2009.

Yet Carson's appointment seemed odd. He was a constitutional expert with no academic credentials in energy or the environment. But he did, however, have a checkered legal career and lengthy criminal record including five convictions in total. When the Calgary Herald asked questions about Carson's criminal record in 2008, a University of Calgary spokesperson refused to talk about "second or third hand information."


Most Canadians first heard of Bruce Carson in March when news broke that a 66-year-old disbarred lawyer and convicted fraudster was under investigation by the RCMP for influence peddling on behalf a Michelle McPherson, his 22-year-old fiancée and a former one-time Ottawa sex worker.

That aspect of Carson's busy life was revealed first by the Aboriginal People's Television Network, which received documents allegedly proving that Carson actively lobbied the federal government on behalf of Michelle McPherson and her new employer, a water filtration company.

McPherson, whose mother works for interests in the gas kingdom of Qatar, was trying to sell water filters to aboriginal reserves where poor water quality remains a legacy of both Liberal and Tory government neglect.

Federal law also prohibits former political staffers from lobbying government for five years after leaving office or from taking improper advantage of their previous position.

Yet there are several loopholes: if individuals spend less than 20 per cent of their time lobbying, lobby for free or are paid by a corporation, they don't have to register their activity. Carson has never registered as a lobbyist.

Lobbying commissioner Karen Shepherd has been asked by at least one MP to investigate the Carson affair and alleged breaches of the Lobbying Act. -- A.N.

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