Ethics watchdog hounds Canada’s chief of staff

Canadian Barrick Gold (TSX & NYSE:ABX) continues to be at the centre of political controversy as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's chief of staff, Nigel Wright, is now the subject of a formal conflict of interest probe over his links with the gold miner.

The government confirmed Tuesday that the ethics commissioner has launched an examination of Wright's dealings with the world's largest gold producer, under section 45 of the Conflict of Interest Act.

"The fact that [the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, Mary Dawson] has decided, on her own, to look into this and launch an investigation speaks to the seriousness of the allegation," told Canadian Press New Democrat ethics critic Charlie Angus, who had been contemplating asking her to investigate the issue.

According to Maclean’s, Angus had previously denounced Harper’s performance at the Summit, saying that resource companies were disappointed at how he “was making it harder for them to obtain permits from the Argentine government for their mining operations.”

“What I was told was Canadian permitting suddenly got a lot more difficult, that there was an immediate blow-back on Canadian mining interests,” Angus said.

“We don’t know what was said at the meeting (with Wright). But we know what the interests were for Barrick, ” he added.

Barrick’s contact with Wright came shortly after Harper blocked a resolution on Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands during the Summit of the Americas in Colombia in mid-April.

The Globe and Mail reported at the time that Harper’s stance infuriated Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who stormed out of the conference, muttering, “This is pointless. Why did I even come here?”

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has said Barrick, which operates a mine in Argentina and is developing another controversial open pit gold and silver mine, Pascua-Lama, which straddles the border between that country and Chile, called Wright to discuss Harper's performance at the Summit.

Baird has insisted Wright simply listened to Barrick's concerns and that there is nothing wrong with that, as he passed the matter over to others accountable for the file and was not involved in any decision involving the company.

However, Baird has failed to explain why Wright participated in three separate calls — on May 14, 25 and 29 — if he had nothing to say and no responsibility for the matter.

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