Ethics of public servant's charity remain unclear

Ottawa Sun/November 9, 2011

The federal government won't say if a public servant's double life as spiritual figure for a registered charity — which spends little money on actual charity work — may contravene ethics rules.

That charity — the Sai Nilayam Spiritual Organisation — has been mentioned in civil proceedings probing an alleged $1-billion federal bid-rigging scam.

Ram Singh is a Treasury Board of Canada staffer who was interviewed in an internal investigation into the awarding of lucrative relocation contracts in 2002.

The contracts were retendered in 2004 amid conflict-of-interest allegations but the same company — Royal LePage Relocation Services — won.

A civil trial, sparked by a losing bidder suing the federal government, has heard that Singh was involved in both processes.

And the Sun revealed last week that he and his wife run Sai Nilayam, which has devoted just 20% of its expenditures to charitable ends since it became a registered charity in 2004.

Sai Nilayam has declared almost $1.2 million in revenue from 2004 to 2010 —the last year information is available — spending $1.3 million in total but only $268,000 on charity projects.

Financial statements show Sai Nilayam fundraises and accepts donations. In 2006, for instance, this included $80,000 in cash donations for renovations to "Sai Nilayam - Ottawa" (which is also Singh's home) and $20,000 for a charitable project in Poland.

Former Royal LePage vice-president Ray Belair, testifying in the civil trial, was asked last month if Singh had ever solicited donations for Sai Nilayam.

"Not that I remember," Belair said. "I never gave him a gift." The public service Values and Ethics Code says public servants should "not solicit or accept transfers of economic benefit," and that they should avoid "real, apparent or potential conflicts of interest." A Treasury Board spokeswoman, citing the civil trial, refused to reveal whether Singh had informed his superiors of his role in Sai Nilayam.

The Board's stonewalling comes even as a senior academic says Singh may not have had to report his involvement with the charity.

Gilles Paquet, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Ottawa's Centre on Governance, noted ethics is a "mushy, non-technical issue." Many civil servants are involved in charitable activities and — even where a person's seniority might elicit a few extra dollars from other employees — "they have not been seen as having developed private, personal benefit out of it," Paquet said.

Paquet switched to non-technical language.

"You always have, in these cases, the smell test," he said.

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