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Politics Trudeau refuses to refund $20,000 speaking fee to New Brunswick charity

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau speaks with media after meeting with caucus on Parliament Hill in this file photo from April 17, 2013 in Ottawa.

Justin Tang/Canadian Press

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is rebuffing a New Brunswick charity's request that he refund a $20,000 speaking fee after the fundraiser he headlined last year proved to be a "huge disappointment."

Mr. Trudeau was hired through a speakers' agency to address a June 27, 2012, fundraiser for the Grace Foundation. An ad for the event cited Mr. Trudeau's "electric charisma and inspirational message," and he spoke about youth education. The event was part of a $300,000 fundraising campaign to buy furniture for a home for the elderly in Saint John.

Mr. Trudeau, who has regularly done paid speaking engagements while serving as an MP, had voluntarily disclosed that he accepted a $20,000 fee, and a spokesperson said the travel costs were paid by the charity.

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The charity last year thanked sponsors for the "success" of the event. But earlier this year, one of the charity's board members wrote Mr. Trudeau asking for a refund, saying the event was a flop and it lost money. The event lost roughly $21,000, or more than Mr. Trudeau's fee.

"The fundraising event we hired you as a speaker for was a huge disappointment and financial loss for our organization," Susan Buck, a board member for the charity, wrote in a March 6 letter to Mr. Trudeau, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail after the story was revealed by the Fredericton Daily Gleaner. The paper quoted a board member as saying the board does not blame Mr. Trudeau for the fact the event lost money.

But in Ms. Buck's letter, the charity nonetheless asked for the fee back, saying that "would meet our needs and would provide a positive public impression."

But the Liberal Leader does not plan to return the money, saying the charity did not object for a year and had agreed to pay the fee, which was negotiated through a firm called Speakers' Spotlight.

The "Grace Foundation did not contact anyone for reimbursement until almost one year after the event, despite having previously indicated that they were satisfied with the event," Mr. Trudeau's spokeswoman, Kate Monfette, said in an e-mail on Friday. "With regards to this event, Mr. Trudeau fulfilled all obligations within his contract."

No taxpayer money was used for Mr. Trudeau to attend the event, Ms. Monfette added. Reached by phone, one member of the Grace Foundation board said the board will meet before commenting publicly.

The issue dominated Question Period on Friday, with Immigration Minister Jason Kenney slamming Mr. Trudeau for accepting money for private events while drawing his salary as an MP.

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"He was getting paid $160,000 as an MP, but he went and took a $20,000 cheque from a group of seniors trying to do a fundraiser to buy furniture," Mr. Kenney said, later adding: "He pretends to be a defender of the middle class. Middle-class Canadians make charitable contributions. They do not take huge payments from charities, especially when it is their job to help them."

In an interview, NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said most MPs speak at events without a fee as part of their jobs.

"Really, straight-up, whatever happened to the notion of public service?" Mr. Angus said. "To me, it's a staggering amount of money to take from a charity. But to do it as a public official, as a Member of Parliament, I think is unconscionable."

This week, the House of Commons unanimously supported an NDP motion to have a committee examine whether any MPs used taxpayers' money to travel to paid speaking engagements.

It wasn't the only fundraiser Mr. Trudeau was under fire for. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall joined federal Conservatives in the attack, calling on Mr. Trudeau to pay back a fee paid to speak last year at a Saskatoon literacy conference.

"In my view, it is inappropriate for a public official to accept a fee to speak at such an event when he is already paid to speak on matters of public policy," Mr. Wall said in a statement.

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