The House of Commons ethics committee is being recalled to discuss whether to investigate the hiring with parliamentary funds of two companies that are also central to the Liberal Party’s digital campaign operations.
The ethics committee is expected to meet Monday after four opposition members wrote a letter Thursday to the chair, asking for a meeting to launch an investigation into possible misuse of parliamentary funding of the Liberal Research Bureau [LRB] and the office budgets of Liberal MPs.
The Globe and Mail reported Monday that NGP VAN, a U.S. database software company that runs Liberal digital voter outreach, has been paid $1-million from parliamentary funds since 2016 to exclusively handle constituency case work for party MPs.
Payments have also been received by Data Sciences, a Montreal-based company that oversees the Liberal Party’s digital operations during elections, to help Liberal MPs use NGP VAN software. In campaigns, Data Sciences works with NGP VAN on digital election activities. The Globe recently reported that both companies are working together on constituency business for Liberal MPs.
House of Commons rules require MPs to use taxpayer resources for parliamentary purposes only and not to subsidize the operations of political parties or re-election campaigns. The Liberals say the spending is purely for constituency outreach services, which is an allowed expense.
Conservative MP Chris Warkentin, who chairs the committee, said: “It will be recalled and it is up to the committee what it does when it is recalled.”
In their letter, the four MPs – Conservatives Michael Barrett, Jacques Gourde, Colin Carrie and Bloc Québécois’s Marie-Hélène Gaudreau – said the contracts raise questions about whether taxpayer dollars are being used for election-related activities.
“Data Sciences was founded by Tom Pitfield, Justin Trudeau childhood friend and senior Liberal campaign strategist … NGP VAN is the company the Liberal Party of Canada licenses to run their political database, Liberalist,” they wrote to Mr. Warkentin.
“It is extremely concerning that there is a co-ordinated Liberal campaign to send taxpayers dollars to these Liberal insiders.”
The MPs say the committee needs to call witnesses, including Mr. Pitfield, to determine whether the Liberals are using taxpayers money directly or indirectly to help their re-election.
“Who in the government instructed Liberal MPs to send taxpayer money to Mr. Trudeau’s childhood friend? When did Mr. Pitfield start receiving taxpayer money? How much money has Mr. Pitfield made to date from Liberals MPs?” they wrote.
However, ethics committee hearings won’t happen if the NDP side with Liberal MPs on the committee. And NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said he is not convinced that the Liberals are abusing spending rules.
“I am not sure they are using it in a way that would actually contravene rules. It would have to be established that they are turning constituency data over for political purposes. Every political party has a data wing and a constituency wing,” he said.
Mr. Angus said his party uses database provider Populus for political and campaign work and a different version from the same company for constituency case work. There is a “pretty clear firewall” between the two services, he said.
Mr. Angus said he would like Parliament to change the law to allow the Privacy Commissioner to do spot checks on MPs offices and caucus research bureaus to make sure constituency data is not being shared for political purposes.
Melissa Cotton, managing director of LRB, said the spending is purely for constituency outreach services. She said that there is an inviolable wall between the help Data Services and NGP VAN provide members of Parliament in managing constituency case work and the voter-outreach assistance these companies provide the party during political campaigns.
Mr. Barrett, the Conservative ethics critic who signed the letter, said he hopes the NDP will support the investigation, saying it is in the public interest on the eve of a federal election.
“It’s important for Canadians to have confidence that everyone that who engages in the election – all parties and candidates – are on an equal footing and no one has used taxpayer resources for electoral or partisan advantage,” he said. “If the Liberals say there is nothing to see here, then let’s have a look.”
Commons expense records show the LRB paid more than $75,000 to Data Sciences in the period between Aug. 1, 2019, and Oct. 1, 2020.
As The Globe reported in late June, Liberal MPs claimed a total of $74,290 in payments to NGP VAN in their fourth-quarter expense reports for the 2020-21 fiscal year. The amount MPs collectively claimed for payments to Data Sciences was more than $30,000.
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