Since U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins moved back home from Ottawa in 2009, he’s reclaimed his role as liaison between the U.S. and its northern neighbor.
But this time, Wilkins — the Bush Administration’s top diplomat in Canada from 2005 to 2009 — is working for the Great White North, lobbying the U.S. federal government on behalf of Canadian business and government entities.
And last week, Wilkins parlayed his former ambassadorship into a job lobbying Congress on behalf of the Toronto-based Investment Industry Association of Canada, according to reports filed with the U.S. Senate.
Does Wilkins’ latest circuit through the international revolving door create conflict of interest or the appearance of one? No, Wilkins told the Center for Public Integrity, saying he “respectfully disagreed” with such a notion.
“As U.S. ambassador, I advocated for the U.S.-Canada relationship,” Wilkins said. “I do the same thing today, but in the private sector.”
The South Carolina native has lobbied on behalf of handful of Canadian interests since 2009, when he joined the Washington-based firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, LLP as partner and chair of the public policy and international law practice group.
Last year, the provincial government of Saskatchewan spent $400,000 to hire Wilkins and his associates to advocate for province’s energy exports and cross-border food safety. That same year, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers spent $240,000 for Nelson Mullins to lobby Capitol Hill regarding Canada’s oil sands industry, records indicate.
Additionally, Wilkins has sat on the board of the Toronto Island-based Porter Airlines since April 2009, according to a Financial Post report.
Wilkins is not the only former U.S. diplomat to represent a foreign entity on Capitol Hill.
Jim Blanchard, an ambassador to Canada during the Clinton administration, advocated for the Forest Products Association of Canada in in 2009.
The Republic of India hired Robert Blackwill — a Bush Administration ambassador to India — to lobby Congress and federal agencies on the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreements, records show.
Wilkins says he has not breached any ethical standards by lobbying for Canadian industry because he has not engaged in any lobbying issue that he was “actively involved” with as ambassador.
The bulk of his pro-Canada advocacy has been devoted to facilitating meetings and lining up press opportunities when Canadian officials visit Washington, Wilkins said.
“There is no conflict of interest, because I’m not advocating on any position that I was actively involved in as a U.S. ambassador.”
The Province of Alberta had, however, hired Wilkins to lobby Congress on "issues impacting Alberta's forestry industry" — an area with which he became familiar while for a time overseeing the decades-long U.S.-Canada lumber trade dispute as ambassador.
Since 2010, Alberta has spent $480,000 for Nelson Mullins lobbying services, including those of Wilkins. Officials from the Alberta and Saskatchewan governments did not reply to requests for comment.
Wilkins said that his most recent work for a Canadian client, the Investment Industry Association of Canada, was consigned to a “one afternoon deal,” meet and greet with the association’s President and CEO Ian Russell and members of the House Financial Services Committee.
“When it came to Congress, we needed to have Nelson Mullins provide us with a little bit of help to meet the right congressional leaders,” Russell said.
During typical visits to Washington, D.C., IIAC officials meet with individual regulators in the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commissions, but this trip was focused on educating members of Congress on the association’s agenda of regulatory reform and Canada’s securities markets, he said.
Wilkins, who works out of a Greenville, S.C., office, said was not present for those meetings and said that the lobbyist registration form filed on behalf of IIAC was submitted in “an abundance of precaution” to ensure transparency in Nelson Mullins’ dealings — however limited — with Canadian trade group.
“We were not advocating for any specific law or bill,” Wilkins said of the visit. “I don’t anticipate any ongoing lobbying effort.”