The Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation is planning an outside review of a controversial Beijing-linked donation, after concerns were raised internally about possible wrongdoing.
Conversations with four key people associated with the Trudeau Foundation show an organization bitterly divided over how to handle the 2016 gift, which The Globe and Mail reported in late February came from the government of China as part of an influence operation to curry favour with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The Globe is not identifying the sources, because they were not authorized to discuss internal foundation matters.
Since The Globe report, senior staff and board members who joined the foundation after 2016 have discovered that the donor of record was Millennium Golden Eagle International, a Chinese state-affiliated company run by billionaire Zhang Bin. They have also learned that associated tax receipts may not be accurate. Mr. Zhang is a political adviser to the government in Beijing and a senior official in China’s network of state promoters around the world.
One source familiar with the matter said the China Cultural Industry Association – a state-backed group in Beijing that aims to build “the soft power of Chinese culture” globally – contacted the Trudeau Foundation at the outset to dictate what name and address should be put on the tax receipt for the gift.
Officials with the association asked the Trudeau Foundation to refrain from using the names of Mr. Zhang and fellow billionaire Niu Gensheng, the men whom the foundation publicly identified as the donors. Instead, the officials asked the foundation to attribute the donation to Millennium Golden Eagle International’s Canadian subsidiary, the source said. And they asked that the tax receipt be linked to an address in Hong Kong rather than the company’s Canadian address – which is a large house, with a pool and basketball court, in the Montreal suburb of Dorval.
A copy of the receipt for the first instalment of the donation, obtained by The Globe and Mail under access-to-information law, confirms the name and address on the receipt: it does not bear the names of Mr. Zhang and Mr. Niu. Instead it names Millennium Golden Eagle International (Canada) as the donor and lists an address in Hong Kong.
The same trove of documents obtained under access to information also shows that the Chinese cultural group later asked that the tax receipt be reissued to its address in Beijing, not the address in Hong Kong.
A Globe reporter visited the address in Hong Kong, which now appears to be occupied by a different company. An employee who answered the door had never heard of Millennium Golden Eagle. The company does not appear to ever have been registered in Hong Kong.
At a contentious Trudeau Foundation board meeting on March 31, the sources said, the board passed a resolution to hold an independent forensic audit of the donation, including examination of all related e-mails and interviews with anyone involved with the gift. It also asked directors who were board members at the time of the donation to avoid interfering in the investigation.
On April 6, Ted Johnson, a former top aide to the late former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, sent an e-mail saying the foundation would proceed with what should be “described as an independent review.” The letter, which was obtained by The Globe, did not mention a forensic audit, and said the terms of reference would have to be approved by the board. Two sources told The Globe the outside review will include a forensic audit.
Once the terms of reference are approved, an independent committee will oversee the investigation, two sources said.
The sources also confirmed that the taxpayer-funded Trudeau Foundation has been unable to return $140,000 to Mr. Zhang, who, along with Mr. Niu, had promised it $200,000 but only delivered 70 per cent of the money.
The two men also pledged $750,000 to the University of Montreal law school, where Pierre Trudeau once studied and later taught law. Another $50,000 was pledged to commission a statue of the former prime minister that was never built.
Two sources said the Trudeau Foundation tried in March to send a refund cheque by Canada Post to the Dorval address of Millennium Golden Eagle International (Canada), but that there was no one at the residence to accept the money.
A foundation document, first obtained by La Presse, says that one of the foundation’s members (members appoint the foundation’s board and auditor) later phoned a senior staff member to say the “real donor” was not the same as the donor “on the tax receipt issued by the foundation in 2016 and 2017.″
The member, who was a director of the foundation in 2016, urged the staff member to hand-deliver the $140,000 cheque to the real donor “as the only way to protect the Foundation and turn the page,” according to the document, which was sent to the foundation’s board on March 29. It is unclear who the member believed the real donor to be.
The document says the staff member, who never learned the identity of the alleged real donor, refused to do so, saying it would not “only be unethical but illegal as this is a third party” with which the foundation has no relationship.
The agreement with the two Chinese businessmen who initially took credit for the donation was signed by Alexandre Trudeau, brother of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a foundation board member at the time. The other signatories were then-University of Montreal rector Guy Breton and then-law school dean Jean-Francois Gaudreault-DesBiens, university spokesperson Genevieve O’Meara said.
Foundation policy in 2016 required acceptances of gifts under $1-million to be signed by the organization’s president and chief executive, who at the time was Morris Rosenberg, a former senior civil servant. (Mr. Rosenberg was recently tapped by the Prime Minister to investigate Chinese interference in the 2021 federal election.) Gifts over $1-million needed to be signed by the board. The foundation was set up with a $125-million endowment from the Jean Chrétien government in 2002.
On Monday, the foundation’s board of directors and its president and chief executive, Pascale Fournier, resigned, citing political backlash from the donation. One source said the resignations had happened because of a “corrosive atmosphere” where people had become “suspicious of each other.”
After the resignations on Monday, one source told The Globe they had expressed concern to the foundation’s leadership that Mr. Johnson and Trudeau family friends Bruce McNiven and Peter Sahlas should not be involved in any aspect of the outside review. The three men remain on the foundation’s board on an interim basis until new directors are selected by the foundation’s members, who met Wednesday to discuss the turmoil.
In February, The Globe first reported that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had captured a conversation in 2014 between an unnamed commercial attaché at one of China’s consulates in Canada and Mr. Zhang.
The pair discussed the federal election that was expected to take place in 2015, and the possibility that the Liberals would defeat Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and form the next government, according to a national-security source. The source said the diplomat instructed Mr. Zhang to donate $1-million to the Trudeau Foundation, and told him the Chinese government would reimburse him for the entire amount.
The Globe is not identifying the source, who risks prosecution under the Security of Information Act.
With a report from James Griffiths in Hong Kong