Cabinet minister Adam Lightstone found himself in a bit of a pickle this past month when colleagues instigated an investigation by Nunavut’s integrity commissioner over a potential conflict of interest sparked by a temporary appointment within his department.
Lightstone had approved the appointment of his spouse as acting deputy minister of Human Resources for five days, to cover off the deputy minister’s scheduled holidays in what the integrity commissioner Katherine Peterson describes as a “chronically understaffed” department.
The deputy minister concluded that Lightstone’s spouse was best suited to fill in for her due to her “strong skills, knowledge and experience,” and steps were taken to avoid Lightstone’s spouse being in direct contact with the minister regarding work issues.
Lightstone has since stepped aside, relinquishing his portfolios “until such time as the Legislative Assembly has the opportunity to formally resolve this matter in accordance with the provision of the Integrity Act,” the premier said.
Peterson, who oversees ethics on behalf of the Legislative Assembly, has recommended that legislators reprimand Lightstone and that the MLA publicly acknowledge his conduct.
However, having to give up his portfolios seems to be a bit of an overreaction, all circumstances considered.
Peterson stated that Lightstone initially had concerns regarding the appointment but he accepted the deputy minister’s advice and gave his signed approval.
While it is true that there were some oversights made, especially in Lightstone’s defence that “everyone (senior staff) knew” about his relation to the recommended appointee, the lack of interest from other potentially available senior staff appears to have put him in a bind.
Peterson’s rebuff was that “there was no canvas of other departments to determine whether a senior staff member could fill this role.”
The biggest problem isn’t even that there was a conflict of interest, but that despite doing what Lightstone considered due diligence and approving a plan that was agreeable to all immediate parties, it was not communicated appropriately, internally or externally.
Arviat-South MLA Joe Savikataaq was among those to bring up the “smell test” or the perception of the chain of events.
The integrity commissioner ultimately found that “although … Minister Lightstone made an error in judgment made in good faith and on the basis of advice received at the time … I wish to point out that there is no evidence of any collusion, corruption, inappropriate benefit nor nefarious actions or directions associated with these circumstances. There was no evidence of the advancement of a private interest of the minister, his spouse or other person.”
Conflict of interest is nearly unavoidable in a such a contracted labour pool – everyone knows everyone; families are large, sprawling and sometimes more complicated than southern-style governance allows for.
Transparency and disclosure could have stopped this issue in its tracks in December – written proof of these conversations is what saves many of us from uncomfortable situations in the workplace.
A perception cannot be hastily formed when interested parties are informed.