Judge cozies up to Israel lobby in conflict of interest

Thomas Cromwell

Even the appearance of a conflict of interest should be enough to dissuade any prudent public official, especially a judge, from an action.

As such, it’s baffling that former Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell would accept an invitation to speak at two Israel lobby groups’ conference while overseeing an inquiry into whether a former official of the organizations acted improperly.

In a report on conflicts of interest within the public service a government commission of inquiry explained, “A perceived or apparent conflict of interest can exist where it could be perceived, or appears, that a public official’s private interests could improperly influence the performance of their duties — whether or not this is in fact the case.”

On February 9 Cromwell is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at a Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA)/United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto conference on “The Rule of Law in Times of Crisis.” At the same time he is speaking at this forum, Cromwell is overseeing an investigation into a highly politicized dispute over a job offer that was rescinded by the University of Toronto law school. Last summer Valentina Azarova had an offer to head its International Human Rights Program withdrawn after reported pressure from Tax Court of Canada judge David Spiro, former co-chair of CIJA Toronto and chair of UJA Toronto’s Public Affairs Committee. Spiro was hostile towards Azarova because of her defence of Palestinian rights.

Spiro’s influence over the University of Toronto largely comes from his family’s wealth. His uncle, Larry Tanenbaum, owner of the Toronto Raptors, financed the University’s Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies. One of the wealthy donors that founded CIJA, Larry Tanenbaum and his brother have given the University of Toronto at least $10 million and helped raise $10 million more.

The Azarova incident has drawn widespread condemnation. Over 1,000 academics and lawyers signed an open letter in support of Azarova while Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others have criticized the university. The Canadian Association of University Teachers Council recently moved closer to taking the rare step of censuring — which includes a call for academics to boycott — the University of Toronto over the affair. Spiro’s conduct in the affair is being investigated by the Canadian Judicial Council, which may remove him as a Tax Court of Canada judge.

Within the University of Toronto, the issue is a hot potato. The individual initially appointed to lead the inquiry resigned under pressure and Cromwell was picked to replace them.

Cromwell’s participation in an event put on by two organizations with close ties to an individual at the centre of an investigation he’s overseeing raises serious questions about his impartiality in the Azarova inquiry. And there’s another reason why Cromwell should not participate in this conference on the “Rule of Law”. Le Journal de Montréal recently reported on UJA Toronto’s role in possibly criminal acts. On 4 June UJA Toronto publicized a webinar by Nefesh-B’Nefesh titled “Joining the IDF”, which claimed to offer participants “everything you need and want to know about joining the IDF”. Yet the Foreign Enlistment Act clearly outlaws recruiting for a foreign military. It states: “Any person who, within Canada, recruits or otherwise induces any person or body of persons to enlist or to accept any commission or engagement in the armed forces of any foreign state or other armed forces operating in that state is guilty of an offence.” Evidence of UJA Toronto’s violation of the Foreign Enlistment Act was recently delivered to the RCMP and over 700 people have written a letter to press the RCMP commissioner to investigate the matter.

A few days ago lawyer John Philpot informed Cromwell about UJA Toronto’s role in illegal recruitment for the IDF and that speaking at the conference would impact the perception of his role within the Azarova inquiry. Writing on behalf of Just Peace Advocates, Canadian Foreign Policy Institute and Palestinian and Jewish Unity, Philpot asked Cromwell to withdraw from the CIJA/UJA Toronto conference.

I followed up to ask Cromwell if he was aware that an individual at the centre of the investigation he lead had been a top official of both CIJA and UJA Toronto and whether he was being paid to speak at the CIJA/UJA event. He answered “no” to both questions. In response I asked, “in light of David Spiro’s former position as CIJA Toronto board member and UJA Toronto Public Affairs Committee chair are you considering withdrawing as keynote speaker?” He didn’t respond to my email by the time the story went to press.

So, readers will be left wondering why a former Supreme Court Justice would address a conference put on by two organizations with close ties to an individual at the centre of a highly politicized investigation he is overseeing?

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