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Crash of ‘The Mechanic’: Oil Sands Flogger Bruce Carson Found Guilty

Harper insider convicted on three counts of illegal lobbying.

Andrew Nikiforuk 21 Sep

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

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Bruce Carson: Tyee’s 2011 investigation of the political fixer called ‘The Mechanic’ detailed roles and activities a judge this week deemed illegal.

Bruce Carson, a senior advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper from 2006 to 2009, has been convicted on three different counts of illegal lobbying.

Carson broke the law while pushing Harper’s fossil fuels friendly agenda from two perches. One was an oil lobby group, and the other was a federally funded think tank at the University of Calgary billed as a clean energy research centre before Carson helped bend it to oil sands advocacy.

Under Canada’s weak and little used Lobbying Act, it is illegal for public office holders to communicate or influence other public office holders for at least five years after they have left office. The act also requires anyone being paid to influence decision-makers to register their activities.

In a lengthy 97-page decision, Justice Catherine Kehoe found that the Harper aide broke the law by repeatedly communicating with public office holders for payment about oil sands issues during the five-year prohibition period. Despite warnings, Carson never bothered to register as a paid lobbyist either.

Kehoe found that Carson willfully broke the law between 2009 and 2011 while serving as director of the now-defunct Canada School of Energy and Environment (CSEE) at the University of Calgary and while acting as co-chair of industry funded Energy Policy Institute of Canada (EPIC).

A 2011 Tyee investigation found that Carson used both organizations as part of a coordinated industry and government effort by the Harper administration to rebrand the oil sands megaproject as a “responsible,” “sustainable,” and “clean.”

Kehoe specifically found Carson guilty of renegotiating a $12-million contract with Industry Canada for the federally funded Canada School of Energy and Environment while he served as director of the think tank.

The school, set up in 2007, was largely an unabashed partisan Tory operation from the get-go. Carson’s deputy director, Zoe Addington, previously served two cabinet ministers that Carson dealt with on a regular basis: Tony Clement and Jim Prentice.

Brian Heidecker, the former vice president of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, also chaired the school’s board of directors, which included the presidents of the University of Alberta, University of Calgary and University of Lethbridge.

Carson even posted partisan speeches on the school’s website. One March 2010 talk to the Tory-friendly Manning Centre admonished Conservatives to keep “faith in leader” and to “Be careful when responding to criticism or bad stories — will a response kill it, will a response prolong it.”

Carson also used the think tank to place glowing oil sands exhibits in three of Canada’s national museums — a development that critics condemned as an overt public relations circus.

In addition to the CSEE conviction, Ontario Justice Kehoe also found Carson guilty on two counts of lobbying members of the Harper government while serving as a paid co-chair of the Energy Policy Institute of Canada (EPIC).

The convictions add to Carson’s record of lawbreaking. Before becoming a top advisor to former prime minister Harper and then taking on his paying roles at University of Calgary and EPIC, Carson was twice found guilty of defrauding clients and disbarred as a lawyer.

But that didn’t disqualify Carson from fronting EPIC, an industry-funded group representing some of Canada’s largest energy producers and included the nation’s strongest pipeline advocates: TransCanada, Enbridge, Suncor, Canadian Natural Resources, Shell Oil, Encana, Imperial Oil, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Company CEOs paid $50,000 each for a two-year membership to the group.

While earning $60,000 a year plus $10,000 a month from EPIC, Carson lobbied senior public office holders including ministers and deputy ministers from the federal departments of Natural Resources, Environment Canada, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Clerk of the Privy Council Office as well as senior members of provincial governments.

Carson’s purpose with industry: ‘design a Canadian energy strategy’

“It’s great that the court found Bruce Carson guilty as it will likely cause a few lobbyists who are currently lobbying in secret to fear being caught and prosecuted,” said Duff Conacher, cofounder of Democracy Watch.

“However, the huge loopholes in the law that allow for secret lobbying must be closed, and the Commissioner of Lobbying must start doing random audits and other key enforcement activities, before we will see even most lobbyist and lobbying come out of the shadows.”

Conacher said he hopes that the courts will impose a strong penalty on Carson — “in any case he will go down in history as a symbol of just how corrupt the Harper Conservative government was.”

According to the judge’s ruling, EPIC sought to “design a Canadian energy strategy” largely drafted by Carson and EPIC’s membership which included some of Canada’s largest oil companies.

Not surprisingly the lobby group advocated for new government policies that would benefit energy industry, streamline regulations and “design regulatory processes that enable, rather than impede responsible energy development.”

“Responsible energy development” has become an industry and government euphemism for mining carbon-intensive bitumen deposits in northern Alberta in the absence of cumulative impact assessments on First Nations, water and climate as recommended by Parliament.

Trudeau advisor was key EPIC player

EPIC’s working members have included key players from both the Tory and Liberal parties including former co-chair of Trudeau’s national political campaign, Dan Gagnier.

Gagnier, a TransCanada lobbyist, served as vice chair or president of EPIC between 2010 until the time of its closure in 2014.  

More than two dozen of the nation’s most powerful oil and gas companies formed EPIC in 2009 to thwart growing resistance to bitumen pipelines by lobbying for an “Energy Strategy for Canada” that would expedite pipelines, increase oil sands expansion and promote business as usual with fossil fuels.

The judge rejected arguments from Carson’s lawyer, Patrick McCann, that Carson’s activities were purely “informational” and that there was no evidence that there was any energy policy anyway to be influenced.

McCann also argued that Carson was simply working on his own while communicating with public officer holders.

“Mr. Carson was working for EPIC and its membership. From the outset, the sole purpose and mandate of EPIC was to develop a national or global energy strategy for Canada,” wrote Kehoe in her decision.

Carson’s busy lobbying datebook

The judge also noted that members of EPIC including former industry minister David Emerson, Tom D’Aquino and Doug Black were all aware of the Lobbying Act and even sought legal advice “as to whom the provisions applied to.”

The group even agreed that Emerson and Carson should not lobby government officials on EPIC’s behalf given their previous government employment.

“This resolution was ignored by all when Mr. Carson undertook and continued to communicate with Public Office Holders at Industry Canada, Environment Canada… and Nigel Wright on behalf of EPIC.”

Carson’s oil sands and energy lobbying all came to an abrupt end in the spring of 2011 when Aboriginal Peoples Television Network reported on the 65-year-old’s attempts to secure water filtration contracts among First Nations to help a 22-year-old girlfriend and former sex worker.

In 2015 a court found Carson not guilty of the charge of influence peddling in relation to his attempts to promote the sale of H20 Pros’ water purification systems.

Carson praised as ‘secret sauce’

In convicting Carson of illegal lobbying, Judge Kehoe often cited numerous email exchanges between EPIC, public officials and Carson that demonstrated “beyond any reasonable doubt” that Carson was breaking the law.

As one example, the judge cited a 2010 email sent to Quebec’s minister of energy, Richard Brousseau, requesting a specific meeting on behalf of EPIC to brief provincial energy ministers on EPIC’s agenda. “Really appreciate your help with this—bc.”

Doug Black, then president of EPIC, later told Carson, “We could do none of this without you” and compared Carson to a “secret sauce” in terms of gaining government access for the corporate group. Black, a lawyer, now serves as a Harper-appointed senator and is a strong LNG advocate.

‘Almost feel sorry for Carson’: Greenpeace spokesperson

Bruce Carson will be sentenced on October 18.

During his flamboyant career as a political insider for both Ontario and federal conservatives, Carson often described himself as a “mechanic,” a political fixer who got things done in the messy corridors of power.

As senior policy advisor to then-prime minister Harper, Carson 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,” a former Carson associate told The Tyee in 2011.

Curiously, two prominent books on the Harper administration by Paul Wells and John Ibbitson barely make any reference to the Carson scandal or the millions of taxpayers’ dollars diverted to support corporate energy agendas during his government.

With the exception of iPolitics and the CBC, the mainstream newspapers largely ignored a wide-reaching scandal that undermined the integrity of universities while promoting the Harper administration’s pro-pipeline and anti-environmental agenda.

In contrast Michael Harris, an award-winning investigative journalist, detailed and raised questions about Carson’s extensive lobbying in his bestselling 2014 book Party of One.

Keith Stewart, head of Greenpeace’s Energy Campaign, who often criticized Carson’s lobbying efforts, said he was pleased by the conviction.

“I can almost feel sorry for Carson because he was only doing what the Harper PMO wanted him to do and even funded him to do: organize the oil companies to be more politically effective in the face of growing Indigenous and environmental opposition,” said Stewart.

“Just because the government of the day doesn’t see any difference between what is good for oil companies and what is in the national interest doesn’t make it legal.”

The public is the loser, says former UC academic

David Keith, now a Harvard professor, worked as one the University of Calgary’s top energy and climate experts while the Carson affair unfolded at the University of Calgary.

In a 2015 Tyee interview, Keith emphasized that Carson’s thinly disguised political lobbying promoted a one-sided and distorted perspective on the oil sands and climate change in Canada that ignored national risks.

“What disturbed me most was that a university think tank refused to do what a university should do: bring in diverse views and have strong debate. The government and industry didn’t want that.”

Largely squelched, says Keith, were issues such as oil price volatility; the darkening picture for oil sands investors; the fossil fuel divestment movement; and the growing global call for concrete action to address climate insecurity and disruptive greenhouse gas emissions.

These issues now dominate the national news.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Politics, Environment

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