The Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation has asked the Auditor-General’s office to investigate a controversial donation from two wealthy Chinese businessmen, who were acting at the behest of the government of China.
Ted Johnson, the interim chair of the foundation, wrote to Auditor-General Karen Hogan on Friday to request a formal audit of the non-profit organization, which was set up in 2002 with a $125-million endowment from the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien.
“Two donations totaling $140,000, made in 2016 and 2017, have become a matter of public controversy since media reports in March of a possible link to the Chinese government,” Mr. Johnson wrote in a letter to Ms. Hogan. “In these circumstances the Foundation would welcome an investigation by the Auditor General of Canada of all aspects concerning the receipt and handling of these donations by the Foundation.”
Mr. Johnson said in a statement provided to The Globe and Mail that the foundation will proceed with its own independent investigation, including a forensic audit. The organization’s board of directors and its president and chief executive, Pascale Fournier, resigned on Monday, citing political backlash over the Beijing-linked donation.
Mr. Johnson, Bruce McNiven and Peter Sahlas – all Trudeau family friends – remain on the board on an interim basis until new directors are selected.
On Friday, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre wrote to Bob Hamilton, the commissioner of Revenue Canada, to request a “fulsome” audit of the charity “with a particular focus on the donation that has been subject to public reporting.”
The Globe reported in February that the Chinese government had orchestrated $1-million in donations to the Trudeau Foundation and the University of Montreal law school in hopes of influencing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The foundation, which offers scholarships, fellowships and leadership programs, commemorates Mr. Trudeau’s father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
A national-security source, whom The Globe is not naming because they risk prosecution under the Security of Information Act, said the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had intercepted a 2014 conversation between Chinese billionaire Zhang Bin and a Chinese commercial attaché in Canada. The diplomat told Mr. Zhang that Beijing would reimburse him for the $1-million expense, according to the source.
Mr. Trudeau won a majority government in 2015. In June, 2016, the Trudeau Foundation publicly identified Mr. Zhang and Niu Gensheng, another wealthy Chinese businessman, as the sources of an imminent gift. The men pledged $200,000 to the foundation. They also pledged $750,000 to the law school, where Pierre Trudeau had studied and taught, and $50,000 for a statue of the former prime minister that was never built. The foundation’s records show that it received only $140,000.
The announcement of the donations happened one month after Mr. Zhang attended a private fundraiser at the Toronto home of Chinese Canadian Chamber of Commerce president Benson Wong, where Justin Trudeau was the guest of honour.
The donation agreement, signed in June, 2016, said the gift would be in the names of Mr. Zhang and Mr. Niu. But a tax receipt for an initial donation of $70,000 was not made out to them, but rather to Millennium Golden Eagle International (Canada), a company that lists Mr. Zhang as a director, according to documents obtained by The Globe under access-to-information law.
After the Globe report on the donation, the foundation announced in early March that it would return the money. But it was unable to deliver a $140,000 cheque, because no one was present at a large Montreal-area home registered to Mr. Zhang. The home is also the registered office address of Millennium Golden Eagle International (Canada).
An official at the foundation, whom The Globe is not naming because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said Friday that a refund cheque for $140,000 was delivered to the company. The cheque, the official added, had been cashed.
The access-to-information documents include correspondence from an official with the China Cultural Industry Association, a state-backed group in Beijing, headed by Mr. Zhang, that aims to build “the soft power of Chinese culture” globally. The official instructed the Trudeau Foundation to send the tax receipt to an address in Hong Kong. Later, the Chinese cultural group asked that the tax receipt be reissued to its address in Beijing, not the address in Hong Kong.
In his letter to the CRA commissioner, Mr. Poilievre said he is concerned that the donations may have come from the Chinese government. He said the tax receipts to Millennium Golden Eagle suggest the Trudeau Foundation may have been “actively complicit in hiding the true source of the donation.”
“These facts raise serious questions around foreign influence peddling, attempts to hide the true source of the funds and potentially fraud,” he wrote.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said Friday that the donations to the Trudeau Foundation, as well as China’s interference operations in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections, make clear that an independent, public investigation into these matters is “more and more necessary, even urgent.”
The government has faced criticism over its handling of Chinese interference since The Globe reported on Feb. 17, based on secret and top-secret CSIS documents, that Beijing employed a sophisticated strategy to disrupt Canada’s democracy in the 2021 federal election campaign. CSIS intelligence reports also said that at least 11 candidates in the 2019 election were the targets of Chinese foreign interference.
Last month, the Prime Minister appointed former governor-general David Johnston as a special rapporteur to assess the extent and impact of foreign interference in Canada’s electoral processes. Opposition MPs criticized the appointment, because Mr. Johnston is a long-time Trudeau family friend, and was until recently a member of the Trudeau Foundation.