Trudeau denies, deflects — and apologizes — in testimony to committee looking at WE scandal
OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he “pushed back” on the public service’s recommendation to outsource a $912-million student volunteer grant program to WE Charity because he feared the “perception” of a conflict of interest.
“WE Charity received no preferential treatment, not from me, not from anyone else. The public service recommended WE Charity, and I did absolutely nothing to influence that recommendation,” Trudeau said.
For the first time since the beginning of the WE controversy one month ago, Trudeau gave a detailed timeline of his involvement in his government’s decision to outsource the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) to the WE organization during a 92-minute grilling at the finance committee Thursday.
After the April 22 announcement of the program that promised to pay eligible students up to $5,000 for volunteer work over the summer, Trudeau said he was convinced it would be run through the Canada Service Corps, an organization overseen by the federal government.
It was only briefly before a May 8 Cabinet meeting that the prime minister and his chief of staff, Katie Telford, learned that the public service recommended the CSSG either be outsourced to WE or scrapped altogether, Trudeau told parliamentarians.
Trudeau says he asked Cabinet to delay that decision a few weeks so he could dive deeper into the public service’s suggestion.
“When I learned that We Charity was recommended, I pushed back. I wanted to be satisfied that the proposal that WE Charity deliver the CSSG had been properly screened,” Trudeau said. “I knew there would be questions asked because of the links to the family.”
“I wanted to make sure all the Is were dotted and all the Ts were crossed,” he said.
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During his testimony, the prime minister listed the various ties he knew linked his family to the WE organization, such as his hosting of WE Day events in the past as well as his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, being a WE ambassador and hosting a WE podcast.
He also said he knew both his brother Alexandre and his mother, Margaret, were paid speakers for the WE organization, but denied knowing how much they had been paid (over $300,000 in total).
But despite knowing of those ties to the WE organization, Trudeau said he never considered recusing himself from the government’s decision to sign the deal with WE.
“I should have recused myself, but I didn’t. I decided to push back instead. And that I regret because young people aren’t having the opportunities they would have had this summer through that program,” Trudeau admitted.
But many MPs couldn’t believe that Trudeau and Telford only worried about a “perception” of conflict of interest.
“The fact is the Kielburger brothers carefully cultivated their relationship with you and your brand. After you became prime minister they put you on the stadium circuit…. Do you think that’s not conflict of interest?,” NPD MP Charlie Angus asked Trudeau, who called the statement “misleading”.
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre later asked Trudeau why he didn’t request the opinion of the federal ethics commissioner on if he should recuse himself or not.
“You consciously recognized in your May Cabinet meeting that such a conflict might exist … that you were consciously aware that there was an inappropriate link to your family that would put you in a conflict. Why did you not call the ethics commissioner and recuse yourself?” Poilievre asked?
“That is simply not true,” Trudeau responded. “My concern about recusing myself was around perceptions.”
During her own testimony after Trudeau’s, the prime minister’s Chief of Staff Katie Telford explained that the “pushback” focused on why it was either a choice between no program or WE Charity, of if the public sector had considered other organizations.
Telford also said neither she, nor the prime minister had anything to do with negotiating the contribution agreement between government and WE.
“Policy staff between different (minister’s) offices was ensuring certain objectives were being met through the contribution agreement, but the negotiation absolutely was not happening through political staff,” Telford said.
“That would be something that is wise for political staff to be leaving to the public servants, to sort out the details of how a contribution agreement should flow,” Telford responded to NDP MP Peter Julian.
Both Telford and Trudeau also admitted they had no idea of the significant changes the WE organization had gone through in the months before signing the contribution agreement with the government.
Those included the sudden resignation of the head of WE’s Canadian board of directors in March following the lay off of over 400 employees.
Telford also said she was not aware that the deal was signed with the WE Charity Foundation, an organization opposition members call a “shell charity” that has no assets.
The Conservatives and NDP have called on federal ethics watchdog Mario Dion to widen his probe of Trudeau to include expenses paid by We to the prime minister’s family.
On Wednesday, Dion sent letters to Conservative and NDP MPs saying he is widening his investigation of Finance Minister Bill Morneau over trips he and his family participated in that were sponsored by the WE organization.
Morneau told the finance committee last week he had freshly repaid WE Charity more than $41,000 in expenses for trips his family took in 2017 to see and take part in some of its humanitarian work.
Trudeau said he didn’t know Morneau had travelled with WE or that one of his daughters worked there.
— With files from The Canadian Press
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