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Former Canada Border Services Agency official Cameron MacDonald at a House of Commons meeting on Tuesday, November 7, 2023.Handout

Members of Parliament investigating allegations of misconduct related to the awarding of federal contract work expressed frustration Wednesday that key consultants and public servants are repeatedly providing them with wildly contradictory testimony.

The latest source of MPs’ concern was a two-hour appearance Wednesday by an Ottawa-based consultant who told The Globe and Mail last year that he “fibbed” to business colleagues in text messages about having political connections inside the offices of senior Liberal cabinet ministers.

Vaughn Brennan, an Ottawa-based independent IT consultant, was pressed repeatedly by MPs Wednesday to explain his actions, but some opposition MPs concluded the meeting by expressing strong dissatisfaction with his testimony.

“It was a text taken out of context,” Mr. Brennan told MPs Wednesday. “I did not lie.”

The House of Commons committee on government operations is investigating how the cost of the ArriveCan app for international travellers grew to exceed $54-million. It is also investigating allegations of contracting misconduct that were raised by a Montreal software company called Botler.

Botler did not work on ArriveCan, but its co-founders Ritika Dutt and Amir Morv had extensive interactions with many of the public servants and private consultants who were involved in that project, including Kristian Firth, the managing partner of a two-person IT staffing firm that received the most outsourcing work related to the app.

Botler’s founders said they were directed to work with Mr. Firth by former Canada Border Services Agency official Cameron MacDonald, and Mr. Firth introduced them to Mr. Brennan, whom they brought on as a subcontractor.

The Globe reported this week that the federal government has suspended Mr. MacDonald, who had since left the CBSA to work as an assistant deputy minister at Health Canada, as well as another former CBSA official, Antonio Utano, who had since become a director-general at the Canada Revenue Agency. Both suspensions are without pay. Mr. MacDonald and Mr. Utano were both mentioned in a November, 2022, report that Botler sent to the CBSA leadership expressing various concerns related to misconduct, including cozy ties between Mr. Firth and various government officials.

A lawyer representing Mr. MacDonald and Mr. Utano told The Globe this week that his clients believe their suspensions are retribution for their joint testimony to the committee in November, during which Mr. MacDonald accused former CBSA vice-president and the federal government’s current chief technology officer, Minh Doan, of lying to MPs about how GCStrategies was selected to work on ArriveCan. Mr. Doan has rejected Mr. MacDonald’s allegations.

CBSA president Erin O’Gorman and former CBSA president John Ossowski are scheduled to appear Thursday.

Botler’s November, 2022, report to the CBSA, which was referred to the RCMP, said Mr. Firth had given them the impression that Mr. Brennan was a “political insider” and had told them Mr. Brennan “rubs shoulders with every ADM in town.”

Mr. Brennan told MPs Wednesday that he checked his phone contacts and there were only three assistant deputy ministers.

“Two of the three are retired,” he said.

Botler’s product is a chatbot that assists people who may have experienced sexual harassment and they were working with Mr. Firth and Mr. Brennan on ways to have the software acquired by various federal departments.

In early 2021, Mr. Brennan drafted a letter for Botler to send to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland from Ms. Dutt’s e-mail account promoting the software.

After some back and forth on wording, Mr. Brennan and Ms. Dutt agreed a copy should also be sent to Jeremy Broadhurst, Ms. Freeland’s then chief of staff.

The e-mail was sent on Jan. 27, 2021, and the next day, Ms. Dutt received a text message from Mr. Brennan in which he gave the impression that he had insight as to how the e-mail was received inside the Liberal government.

“They are trying to find a ‘home’ for this opportunity and there is internal negotiations as to how best to position,” he wrote.

Then in a Feb. 1, 2021, text to Ms. Dutt and Mr. Firth, Mr. Brennan wrote: “DPMO’s reached out to Justice & CBSA. Contact was not able to offer context but be ready for questions if asked …”

Ms. Freeland’s office told The Globe that the e-mail in question went to a general inbox and did not make it to the minister.

Reached for comment last year by The Globe, Mr. Brennan said on Sept. 27 that he “fibbed” about having inside information in an effort to put pressure on Ms. Dutt to take more action on the file.

NDP MP Gord Johns asked Mr. Brennan about the texts Wednesday and who he was referring to as a contact.

“I do not have any contacts,” Mr. Brennan restated.

“Why would you write that?” Mr. Johns asked.

“They’re all based on hypothetical and speculative conversations,” Mr. Brennan said, an explanation he repeated throughout the meeting.

“The problem is that you seem to have a different definition of lying than everybody else does,” said Conservative MP Garnett Genuis, who wrapped up Wednesday hearing by saying Mr. Brennan’s testimony fits a pattern.

“This committee has been repeatedly lied to by various witnesses in response to various kinds of questions,” he said. As examples, he said Mr. Firth “contradicted himself terribly” during his appearance last year and Mr. MacDonald and Mr. Doan have accused each other of lying.

“We have multiple instances of people lying or accusing each other of lying,” he said. “We have a story now that Mr. MacDonald and Mr. Utano have been incredibly suspended from the public service without pay in the middle of an ongoing investigation… But what I’m most struck by is the cover-up that we are seeing in the context of these hearings. It should be fairly easy for both public servants and consultants to appear before this committee, and simply tell us the truth.”

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