An important role of the Senate Ethics Officer involves conducting inquiries to determine whether senators have complied with their obligations under the Ethics and Conflict of Interest Code for Senators.
The SEO must first conduct a preliminary review, which is distinct from an inquiry, if he has reasonable grounds to believe that a senator has not complied with his obligations under the Code or receives a request to conduct an inquiry from a senator who has reasonable grounds to believe that another senator has not complied with his obligations under the Code.
A preliminary review is conducted confidentially pursuant to the Code. However, where the SEO determines that an inquiry is not warranted, the preliminary determination letter is made public (unless the matter is not in the public domain) when the Committee tables it in the Senate. If the SEO determines that an inquiry is warranted, the matter remains confidential until the inquiry report of the SEO is tabled in the Senate.
The Code does not provide a mechanism for the public to trigger a preliminary review or an inquiry. However, the SEO examines all information pertaining to a senator that is brought to his attention by members of the public, including the media, and may self-initiate a preliminary review under the Code as described above.
Following a preliminary review, an inquiry can be commenced (i) where the SEO determines that an inquiry is warranted after conducting the preliminary review; or (ii) where the Senator who was the subject of a preliminary review requests that the SEO conduct the inquiry because the SEO has made a finding that an obligation under the Code may have been breached but has also determined that an inquiry is not warranted.
The length of an inquiry is the result of a combination of factors. Some of these factors are related to the very nature of an inquiry, others are related to the circumstances of a particular inquiry (these are normally identified in inquiry reports), and some relate to factors external to the inquiries. Examples of these factors include the following:
- An inquiry is a complex, impartial and objective process that is meant to balance the rights and privileges of the Senate to discipline its own members and the right of individual senators to a fair process.
- The Code requires that senators who may be the subject of an inquiry be given information and reasonable opportunities to make representations at various stages of the inquiry process. Senators who are the subject of an inquiry and other participants to an inquiry can be, and often are, represented by counsel. The inquiry process, as a whole, must be fair and follow due process as established by the SEO. Giving senators a reasonable time and multiple opportunities during the various stages of an inquiry to make representations lengthens the time required to complete the process.
- An inquiry is a process for gathering evidence and facts, testimony and documents against which the provisions of the Code will be applied. Gathering these should be, but is often not, a straightforward process. The scheduling of witnesses depends on the availability of senators and others who, due to the parliamentary calendar, are sometimes unavailable during parliamentary breaks, which sometimes extend for months at a time. Information and documents, both written and electronic, should be made readily available without delay, but often they are not. The time required to establish contacts with witnesses and to obtain documents may be lengthy. In addition, the evidence obtained throughout the course of an inquiry may lead to the need to interview more witnesses and to obtain and assess additional documents and evidence.