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Marc Kielburger, screen left, and Craig Kielburger, screen right, appear as witnesses via video conference during a House of Commons finance committee in the Wellington Building in Ottawa on July 28, 2020.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A report on the WE Charity fiasco released this month by the House of Commons ethics committee is yet another damning look at the Trudeau government’s handling of the matter, but it leads to an unexpected conclusion: that the conflict of interest scandal long seen as the heart of the affair wasn’t even the worst thing about it.

The report says that the government’s decision to sign an untendered contract worth $543.5-million with WE Charity was “deeply troubling” for reasons that had nothing to do with the organization’s relationship with the Trudeau family, and everything to do with the committee’s finding that Ottawa hadn’t done its due diligence with regard to WE.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on June 25, 2020, that WE would manage the Canada Student Service Grant, a pandemic-relief program aimed at providing youth with opportunities to do volunteer work, and get paid for it.

A week later, the deal collapsed. Amid a storm of conflict-of-interest allegations, WE Charity announced its withdrawal from the CSSG on July 3.

The allegations focused on the fact that WE, an organization known for voluntourism, celebrity spokespeople and concert-style youth rallies, had paid Mr. Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, his mother, Margaret Trudeau, and his brother, Alexandre, hundreds of thousands of dollars to speak at its events.

Mr. Trudeau himself was an enthusiastic participant in the charity’s events, in particular its revival-like WE Day gatherings, but was never paid to appear.

As an added bonus, Mr. Trudeau’s finance minister, Bill Morneau, had travelled in 2017 to Kenya and Ecuador with his wife and daughter to learn about WE projects in those countries, and somehow allowed WE to pick up the tab.

Both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau failed to recuse themselves from the May 22, 2020, cabinet meeting at which the government chose WE Charity to run the CSSG program.

They both eventually apologized for doing so. Mr. Morneau also resigned, after reimbursing WE for his 2017 trips.

In May of this year, the federal ethics commissioner found Mr. Morneau had broken federal ethics laws three times, largely owing to his personal friendship with Craig Kielburger, one of the two co-founders of WE (along with his brother Marc Kielburger).

The ethics commissioner ruled that Mr. Trudeau had not broken any rules. But the conflict of interest allegations still hang over him. And he only made things worse for himself when he prorogued Parliament last August in a naked attempt to silence the committees looking into the WE affair.

It didn’t work, of course. The ethics committee picked up this spring where it left off, and its main conclusion suggests the conflict of interest allegations may have been a distraction from something worse: rampant incompetence.

The report found that Mr. Trudeau never asked for documented support of the claims that the public service wouldn’t be able to run the CSSG program, and that WE was the best choice.

It was simply more convenient to accept what turned out to be spectacularly poor due diligence on the part of those charged with setting up the program.

The ethics committee said it “was unable to find any due diligence reports that actually tested the credibility of the claims made by the WE Charity. This group had never undertaken a project close to this magnitude…”

The committee also discovered that key members of the government were unaware that the $543.5-million contract wasn’t signed with WE Charity, but with the WE Charity Foundation, a related shell company that had no assets.

And it found that, after 10 months of study, it was still unable to get a clear picture of the financial structure of the charity, which had both charitable and for-profit arms. “We were unable to ascertain a clear division between how monies flowed through the charitable wing and their for-profit operations,” the report said.

None of this proves that WE Charity could never have successfully set up and run the CSSG program. But it’s a frank condemnation of the Trudeau government’s incompetent rush to buy popularity by showering pandemic dollars on a valuable demographic (ah, youth!), without really understanding or caring where the money was going.

And that’s an even more serious charge than conflict of interest.

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