A Globe & Mail columnist in a submission to the House heritage committee acknowledges third-party dealings with federal agencies, software investors and unnamed organizations, but denied any conflict of interest. The newspaper’s Editorial Code Of Conduct restricts columnists from “outside involvement with a group or association being covered”. Globe management did not comment.
“I have never advised the Department of Justice on copyright litigation,” columnist Michael Geist wrote MPs. “I have advised them on issues that may have created a solicitor-client relationship.” The committee released Geist’s written statement January 3.
Geist is a $209,000-a year professor at the University of Ottawa and frequent Globe contributor writing on legal and IT issues. The columns identify Geist only as Canada Research Chair in internet and e-commerce law at the University.
In his submission to the committee, Geist said he accepted Google Corp. sponsorship for a book launch, acts as a legal advisor to groups he did not identify, and arranged a private meeting with Department of Industry regulators on behalf of a private software company.
Access To Information files show Geist also had personal email correspondence with Industry Canada managers – he signed emails “MG” – and was offered grant money to pay visiting speakers to meet with federal staff.
The Globe did not respond to questions. The newspaper’s 22-page Code Of Conduct states columnists should tell readers of third-party dealings even with charities “in columns touching on the interests of the organization”.
“At a minimum, writers must inform their editors and seek guidance when they have significant personal interests in matters they may have occasion to write about,” the Code states: “As a general rule, reporters and columnists should avoid taking part in coverage of matters in which they have or may be perceived to have significant personal interest.”
“In this context, personal interest means a financial stake in a manner being covered, a close friendship, romantic attachment or near-family relationship to someone whose career or other interests may be affected, or any other arrangement that could lead to less than even-handed treatment,” the Code continues.
Geist did not detail his solicitor-client dealings with the Department of Justice. “I am an independent academic,” he wrote MPs.
“I have provided some non-advocacy related legal advice to some organizations on copyright-related matters,” said Geist. He provided no details.
Geist said he did not take any direct payments from Google Corp., adding: “Google sponsored a book launch that I held in 2013”; “The sponsorship covered the cost of a reception,” he said. The cost of the October 4, 2013 publicity event for The Copyright Pentalogy was not disclosed.
Newly-released department records show Industry Canada in 2013 offered Geist $5,000 to pay expenses for visiting speakers to meet with department staff. “We’re planning to run the delayed copyright event this fall,” Geist wrote the department. “It is currently scheduled for October 4. There are a number of speakers coming from out of town that could use financial support via the travel letters that we discussed.”
The department said it didn’t considered the funding request extraordinary. “The department sometimes supports the sharing of knowledge produced by academics,” wrote staff.
Geist also arranged a meeting with Industry Canada regulators on behalf of SurfEasy Inc., a Toronto software firm. The company appointed Geist to its advisory board on June 19, 2013. “There was no lobbying and no compensation for the email,” Geist wrote MPs.
On October 15, 2013 Geist emailed now-Assistant Deputy Industry Minister Paul Halucha: “Hope you are well. I sit on the advisory board of (SurfEasy)…The company has some questions about the potential applicability of the notice-and-notice provisions to its operations. It was hoping for a chance to discuss those with you…Best, MG.”
The meeting was scheduled a week later. Halucha did not comment. The department said it could not find details of the SurfEasy meeting.
“As a general rule, in fulfilling the department’s mandate and serving Canadians, department officials regularly meet with stakeholders including private companies, and sometimes on short notice when a department official is available,” said Bernard Beckhoff, spokesperson for Industry Canada. “Free and open access to government is a matter of public interest. Lobbying is a legitimate activity that must be done transparently.”