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Former BC NDP president lobbying province for cannabis company

Work by onetime party insider on behalf of medical marijuana firm creates conflict of interest, expert says
Craig Keating (right) with Premier John Horgan and Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson

The BC NDP’s former president is lobbying the B.C. government for a marijuana company.
Craig Keating joined the Vancouver office of Seattle-headquartered Strategies 360 as a vice-president last December after eight years as party president. On April 7, Keating registered on behalf of client Tantalus Labs Ltd., which produces medical cannabis, to arrange meetings with officials in the ministries of Public Safety and Solicitor General, Agriculture, Food and Fisheries and Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation.

Keating is also lobbying the BC Liquor Distribution Branch, which distributes and retails non-medical cannabis.

The NDP government imposed a two-year, post-employment ban on lobbying by former senior provincial public office holders, but the law does not cover former party officials. Nor does the B.C. government have its own code of ethics for lobbyists.

“Federally, there's an ethics code, you can't do anything to place the public officeholder in a real or apparent conflict of interest,” said Duff Conacher, co-founder of DemocracyWatch. “So it doesn't matter how the conflict of interest is generated, just can't do it. One of the things that generates conflict of interest is helping someone get elected.”

The federal Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct states a public office holder who benefits from political activities may have a sense of obligation to those who held a senior position in a party or had significant interaction with candidates. “If you engage in higher-risk political activities then you should not lobby any public office holder who benefited from them, nor their staff, for a period equivalent to a full election cycle,” says the federal code.

Keating joined Strategies 360 almost a year after former BC NDP executive director Raj Sihota became a vice-president for the firm, which boasts 22 offices and over 180 staff in the western U.S., Washington, D.C., Indonesia and Vancouver. President of the Canadian division is Michael Gardiner, another former BC NDP executive director who also managed Premier John Horgan’s winning leadership campaign. 

Merritt lawyer Aaron Sumexheltza, the former elected chief of the Lower Nicola Indian Band, succeeded Keating as party president last December.

Strategies 360’s B.C.-registered clients include Telus, Seaspan ULC, Pembina Pipeline Corp., Vancouver Art Gallery Association, Google Cloud Canada Corp., Surgical Centres Inc., and Canadian News Media Association.

B.C. does not have a municipal registry of lobbyists.

In a 2013 report, Registrar Elizabeth Denham said instead of a standalone code of ethics, B.C. should “embed aspects of other jurisdictions’ codes of conduct into the existing Lobbyists Registration Act.”

In Keating’s case, he told the registrar that he agrees with the Public Affairs Association of Canada’s seven-point code of conduct, which includes following laws in each jurisdiction and avoiding conflicts of interest. Conacher called it another form of industry self-regulation.

“Without ethics rules, it doesn't matter,” Conacher said. “The transparency doesn’t really matter, as you see by the clients of these firms, right? They don't care that everyone knows that they've hired these people to lobby. They're still hiring them because they know they're going to get their calls answered and likely get what they want, because they have the access.”

Keating did not respond for comment. His bio on the Strategies 360 website says he established and leads the municipal lobbying practice, focusing on zoning, permitting and regulatory matters in Metro Vancouver. Keating taught history classes at Langara College and spent 19 years as a North Vancouver city councillor.

Tantalus operates the 120,000-square-foot SunLab greenhouse grow-op in Maple Ridge, and advertises pot products named “Petrocan,” “Wedding Crashers,” “More Cowbell” and “Unicorn Poop.”