Conservatives say police should be called in to investigate WE charity scandal

OTTAWA — Calls for independent review of the Liberal government giving a sole-source contract to the WE organization intensified Friday with the Conservatives demanding police step in and the NDP asking the ethics commissioner to add the finance minister to the list of those he's investigating.

The Conservatives said they want a criminal investigation into the government's decision to have WE run a $900-million program for student volunteers.

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Though an ethics investigation into Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is already underway, new facts add to the seriousness of the issue, Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett said.

"The revelation that $350,000 in cash was paid by this organization to immediate members of Justin Trudeau's family, that organization that he awarded a sole-sourced $1-billion contract to, that revelation raises the need for the police to take a look at it," he said.

Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion had announced a week before he'd probe whether Trudeau broke conflict of interest law.

The Conflict of Interest Act calls on a holder of a public office, including a minister, to "recuse himself or herself from any discussion, debate or vote on any matter in respect of which he or she would be in a conflict of interest."

And it describes a conflict of interest as a situation where an office holder "exercises an official power, duty or function that provides an opportunity to advance his or her private interests or those of his or her relatives or friends or to improperly further another person's private interests."

There are long-standing ties between the WE organization and the Trudeau family. Trudeau, his mother Margaret, brother Alexandre and wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, have all appeared at the group's many events.

Margaret Trudeau has a profile as a mental health advocate and has been in the public eye for decades.

On Thursday, the WE organization said she had been paid about $250,000 for 28 speaking appearances between 2016 and 2020.

Alexandre, who is a filmmaker, has been paid $32,000 for eight events, according to WE.

The organization that represents them as speakers was paid additional commissions, WE said.

And Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, who had a career in television, received $1,400 in 2012 for a single appearance that year.

Most of the payments were from the organization's for-profit component, ME to WE Social Enterprise, which sponsors the charitable component, WE Charity said in a statement.

Justin Trudeau was never paid for anything, said WE Charity.

Trudeau's office has said "the prime minister's relatives engage with a variety of organizations and support many personal causes on their own accord."

He also maintained the non-partisan public service recommended WE be paid $19.5 million to administer the $900 million Canada Student Services Grant program.

Announced in June, the program will pay students $1,000 toward their education costs for every 100 hours of volunteering done through approved charities and non-profits.

At the time, Trudeau said WE was the only organization in Canada with the reach and expertise needed to execute the plan.

Placements are uncertain now that WE has withdrawn and the government has taken over.

The ethics commissioner had announced his investigation also prior to Trudeau's admission that he did not recuse himself from cabinet approval of the deal.

The NDP said Friday that the commissioner should now also investigate Finance Minister Bill Morneau for failing to do the same.

One of Morneau's daughters has spoken at WE events in the past, though was not paid, and the other is currently working in the organization's travel department on a contract, Morneau's office confirmed.

"It would seem apparent that Minister Morneau would recognize that the fact that his family member was an employee of this organization necessitated him to recuse himself regarding this extraordinary decision to outsource nearly billion-dollar commitment of public funds in a single source contract," NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus wrote in a letter to the commissioner asking for an investigation.

Morneau's spokesperson said there was no connection.

"There is absolutely no link between her employment and any work that WE does with the Government of Canada," said Morneau's spokesperson Maeva Proteau in an email.

Liberal Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains and Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand were asked Friday, at an event in Oshawa, Ont., whether they knew about the payments from WE to the Trudeau family and whether the prime minister should have recused himself from the decision to award WE the contract.

They ducked direct answers.

"We work very closely with the public servants who are non-partisan and they provided us with a clear set of recommendations and we followed those recommendations," Bains said.

The section of the Criminal Code the Conservatives are suggesting could apply is the same one once used to charge former Conservative senator Mike Duffy in the Senate expenses scandal.

It deals with frauds on the government, and creates offences related to government officials, or their families, benefiting from government contracts.

Duffy was charged under section 121 of the Criminal Code for taking a $90,000 cheque from then-chief of staff to the prime minister, Nigel Wright, to repay his housing expenses.

Duffy was also charged under section 122, for breach of trust. Advocacy group Democracy Watch called Friday for that section to applied to the WE matter and is filing its own complaint with the RCMP.

Duffy was later acquitted on all charges. Though that verdict came after the Conservatives lost power, the scandal was a major distraction for the Conservatives in the waning days of their majority government.

None of the three opposition parties have said they would consider trying to bring down the Liberal minority government over the WE scandal.

"We're looking to get the truth and accountability," the Conservatives' Barrett said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2020.

—With files from Mia Rabson

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