House of Commons ethics committee issues scathing report on WE Charity affair

Liberals blasted over WE

A parliamentary committee issued a scathing report Thursday on the Trudeau government’s now-cancelled deal with WE Charity that includes calls for stronger measures to protect against inappropriate lobbying and conflicts of interest.

The report from the House of Commons ethics committees followed months of contentious hearings and the release of thousands of pages of documents since last spring, when the government first inked the agreement with WE.

Committee members from all three main opposition parties signed off on the majority report, which focused on WE’s connections to various members of the Liberal government as well as the organization’s lobbying and business practices.

The report also called attention to the various challenges that committee members faced in conducting their study. It started last summer, was interrupted after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued Parliament in August, and then resumed in the fall.

Among the challenges was the government’s refusal to send some ministerial staff to testify on what they knew about the agreement with WE. The government argued that ministers are ultimately responsible for their staff.

“Some witnesses only appear before this committee after the summons were issued or the threat of summons in this case,” Conservative MP and ethics committee chair Chris Warkentin told the House of Commons after the report was tabled.

“In addition, the committee is of the view that some of the witnesses’ response to requests for documents or written answers to questions are incomplete. Despite all the documents and written responses received, the committee believes there are still many questions to be answered.”

The WE affair has bedevilled Trudeau's minority Liberal government since last summer when it decided to pay the charity up to $43.5 million to administer a volunteer student grant program.

The contract specified WE was not to make a profit from the deal.

The decision prompted immediate controversy due to the charity's ties to Trudeau and his wife, as well as to his mother and brother, both of whom had been paid to appear at some WE events over the years.

Then-finance minister Bill Morneau, whose daughter worked for WE and who had made generous donations to it, also came under fire. Trudeau and Morneau apologized for not recusing themselves from the decision. WE Charity quickly withdrew from the program, which was cancelled.

Last month, ethics commissioner Mario Dion ruled that Trudeau did not breach the Conflict of Interest Act. But in a separate report, he also ruled Morneau did break the rules and gave preferential treatment to WE Charity because of his personal friendship with Craig and Marc Kielburger.

While the committee took aim in its report at Trudeau, Morneau and Youth Minister Bardish Chagger, it also criticized some of the charity’s business practices.

“The committee notes that over the 10 months of its study, it was unable to get a clear picture of the financial structure of the WE group,” the report reads.

“We were unable to ascertain a clear division between how monies flowed through the charitable wing and their for-profit operations. We were also denied information on the ownership structure of their multitude of side companies.”

The committee called on the government not to work with WE again until an audit by the Canada Revenue Agency or an independent group was undertaken to determine how the company operates.

The committee also flagged what it saw as gaps and weaknesses in the federal lobbying regime, and called for new measures such as granting the lobbying commissioner investigative powers.

It also asked that the lobbying and ethics commissioners be given more powers to fine violators, and for the government to put up better screens to prevent potential conflicts of interest in the future.

Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett in a statement said the report “shines a light on a troubling pattern of Liberal corruption. It is time to clean up the mess and end the abuse by insiders.”

Liberal committee members in their own dissenting report agreed with the need to review both the Lobbying Act and the Conflict of Interest Act, but accused the opposition of a veritable witch hunt that led to WE and others being targeted online and elsewhere.

“It was the public harassment and violent threats against witnesses called to testify for this study that were especially troubling. … WE Charity co-founder Craig Kielburger reported multiple intimidation and death threats against him and his family, including his elderly parents.”

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