UCP MLA's deleted tweet seemingly promoting wife's company likely didn't break rules: ethics expert

An Alberta MLA has deleted social media posts seemingly promoting a company his wife co-owns — a post that an ethics expert says likely didn’t break any rules but might indicate they need an update in the age of social media.

On Sunday, Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes posted to a photo to Facebook and Twitter that shows him standing next to a “sold” sign from custom home-building company Belcore Homes.

“Despite a housing market that hasn’t been the greatest in the past couple years, people are still looking to buy homes in #MedHat,” the UCP MLA wrote.

“Why? The community is amazing, the people are amazing, and there’s no better place to call home. Let’s keep our population growing, Hatters!”

Belcore Homes and Belcore Holdings are listed on Barnes’ 2017 public disclosure statement as a company he and his wife, Frances Barnes, have financial interests in. 

Frances Barnes is one of two directors of Belcore Homes Ltd. and Belcore Holdings Ltd., and has a 50 per cent voting share.

Some users on social media expressed concern over the posts, which Barnes deleted after they were up for just a few hours.

Ian Stedman is a lawyer who worked in the Office of the Integrity Commissioner of Ontario, and whose current PhD studies focus on federal parliamentary ethics laws.

He said he doesn’t believe Barnes’ posts break any rules — but they do show how ethics rules may need an update in the age of social media.

‘Rules aren’t so clear’

“It seems like you shouldn’t spend your time as an MLA drawing attention to your private company, but the rules aren’t so clear,” he said. “I think if he had done it in Ontario, it would have been against the rules, but because he’s doing it in Alberta, it’s fine.”

Stedman pointed to section two and three of the Government of Alberta’s Conflicts of Interest Act that might be relevant for Barnes’ posts.

The first section doesn’t apply, Stedman said, because the posts don’t seem to influence any particular decision or political issue in Alberta.

[The rules] may need to be broadened a little bit so they actually reflect what the public expects of their MLAs.– Ian Stedman, ethics expert

As for the second, it states:

“A Member breaches this Act if the Member uses the Member’s office or powers to influence or to seek to influence a decision to be made by or on behalf of the Crown to further a private interest of the Member, a person directly associated with the Member or the Member’s minor child or to improperly further another person’s private interest.”

While that could seem as if it could apply, Stedman said the intent of the section is to describe someone sitting in the legislature as exercising their duties or office — not necessarily engaging with the public through social media.

“So then the question becomes, is tweeting … in the course of carrying out the member’s office? And I would think that your integrity commissioner would be very hard pressed to pigeonhole this into that language.”

Stedman pointed to a finding from the ethics commissioner last year, into whether or not there was an issue with social media posts that showed Jason Kenney, then an MLA prior to beccoming premier, and MLA Prasad Panda visiting a refinery in India in which Panda owns shares.

The investigation found “in no way was Kenney attempting to influence the Crown. He was commenting on his trip and updating his followers.”

Stedman said this situation would likely lead to similar findings, although it does point to the fact that instant communication just wasn’t on the radar when ethics legislation was put into place.

“There’s a different kind of engagement with people than there ever was when these rules were conceptualized, so … they have too much nuance in them to be applicable to situations where I think the public would look at and say, ‘oh, they ought to apply here,’ so they may need to be reconsidered,” he said.

“[The rules] may need to be broadened a little bit so they actually reflect what the public expects of their MLAs.”

CBC News has reached out to Barnes’ office and the Office of the Ethics Commissioner for comment.

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