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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill on June 26, 2013. (ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill on June 26, 2013. (ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

PMO, NDP press Trudeau on why he ever accepted speaking fees Add to ...

Although no charity or group has taken Justin Trudeau up on his offer to refund speaking fees, the Liberal Leader’s opponents are calling on him to explain why he accepted the money in the first place.

Mr. Trudeau was under fire last month over the fees he earned for giving speeches after he became an MP. Much of the outcry began over a March letter in which a New Brunswick charity, the Grace Foundation, asked Mr. Trudeau to return his $20,000 fee because its event lost money. The letter was made public in June. Mr. Trudeau did not return the fee, but offered to do so after the issue erupted. The Grace Foundation has dropped the request.

However, if the charity and Mr. Trudeau consider the matter closed, the Prime Minister’s Office and Official Opposition NDP do not.

PMO spokesman Carl Vallée said Mr. Trudeau should pay the money back regardless of whether the charity wants it. “Justin Trudeau never should have taken money from charities in the first place,” Mr. Vallée said in an e-mailed statement. “ … Nothing is stopping him from paying it back, which would be the right thing to do.”

NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said the charity’s request does not change the broader question: whether it was appropriate to accept fees for speeches that many MPs consider part of their job.

“I think what’s outstanding here is whether it occurred to Mr. Trudeau himself that it was an error in political judgment to be charging these kinds of fees for work that should have been the work of a member of Parliament,” Mr. Angus said, noting Mr. Trudeau had a poor attendance record in the House of Commons while raking in money on the speaking circuit.

“That’s the overall question, not whether he pays it back or whether the charity feels they don’t want to be [paid back] the money any more,” Mr. Angus said.

Conservative MPs – who had been under fire for weeks over the Senate spending scandal – began asking about the issue last month during Question Period. The PMO had received the Grace Foundation’s letter through New Brunswick MP Rob Moore, who knew one of the group’s board members. A Barrie, Ont., newspaper later reported that PMO staffer Erica Meekes had sent it unsolicited information about Mr. Trudeau’s speaking work and asked not to be identified. Ms. Meekes, who was covering a leave of absence for another PMO staffer, is now the press secretary for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt.

Mr. Trudeau was asked last month whether he thought the Conservatives were stoking the outcry, but said he was “going to play it straight” with the Grace Foundation. Both sides now want to move on. “We will not be commenting further,” Trudeau spokesperson Kate Monfette said on Tuesday as the Liberal Leader was touring British Columbia.

The Grace Foundation shrank from the public eye when the issue erupted. Five people are no longer serving on the board, including Sue Buck, who wrote the letter to Mr. Trudeau, and Judy Baxter, who gave it to Mr. Moore. Neither has commented on why they are no longer on the board. Former board members Robert MacAndrew and Bruce Wright both say they left the board before the Trudeau issue erupted.

Mr. Trudeau accepted speaking fees from 17 organizations since becoming an MP, information he voluntarily disclosed. MPs are paid $160,000 a year, but are allowed to earn money from other projects, and many do. Conservative Senator Jacques Demers, a former NHL coach, has also accepted money from charities for speaking events, although he donates a portion of the fee to the charity.

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