The leader of the two-person IT staffing firm at the centre of misconduct allegations said he made a mistake in submitting inflated work experience records to the government, but played down the significance of the decision and rejected accusations that he has claimed to have “dirt” on senior federal officials.
GCStrategies managing partner Kristian Firth faced heavy criticism from MPs, however, for providing contradictory statements during a committee hearing Thursday. He first said he had never met public servants outside of formal work settings and later said he had. He also originally denied knowing anything about a senior procurement officer’s cottage, but later said he did know about his “chalet.”
Mr. Firth told MPs that he personally increased the stated work experience of contractors in government forms without their knowledge, describing it as a rare mistake made in haste to meet a project deadline. He said the changes were aimed at making the information compliant with a government evaluation matrix.
“This regrettable mistake was not intentional and in no way determined the awarding of the contract,” he said, later adding that it would not have influenced pay rates. He described it as a mistake that was “made once” and “is not something I do frequently.”
The Globe reported last week the documents included a detailed description of a company that doesn’t exist.
Mr. Firth appeared virtually Thursday before the House of Commons government operations committee, which approved a summons for him to answer its questions. The committee ended the hearing by requesting that he appear for an additional two hours.
GCStrategies received $11-million to work on the federal government’s ArriveCan app, more than any other outsourcing company that worked on the government’s pandemic-era smartphone tool for travellers that ultimately cost taxpayers more than $54-million.
The two-person IT staffing company is also at the centre of allegations of contracting misconduct and cozy ties with senior federal public servants.
Thursday’s hearing was the first time GCStrategies has commented since The Globe and Mail reported on Oct. 4 about misconduct allegations made by Montreal software company Botler, which performed contract work for the Canada Border Services Agency in 2020 and 2021. Botler raised allegations of misconduct with the agency in 2021 – and then again in November 2022 – that named Mr. Firth and his firm, as well as two other staffing companies, Coradix and Dalian.
In response to the second report, the border agency launched internal audits and investigations and referred the allegations to the RCMP. The national police force confirmed to The Globe that it is also investigating the matter. Mr. Firth said he has not been contacted by the RCMP.
Botler co-founders Ritika Dutt and Amir Morv, who worked alongside Mr. Firth for over a year, told MPs last week that Mr. Firth had frequently boasted that he and his friends, senior government officials with contracting authorities, have “dirt” on each other.
NDP MP Gord Johns asked Mr. Firth if this was true.
“Never, ever have I ever said this, let alone continuously boast about it,” Mr. Firth replied. “I have no dirt on anybody.”
GCStrategies’s business with government has grown quickly since its creation in 2015, bringing in more than $59-million in federal funding since 2017. That includes $9.4-million last year from the CBSA in fiscal 2022-23, even though the agency received a misconduct complaint about Mr. Firth’s activities in 2021.
Botler’s extensive list of allegations included concern that its work for the agency was funded through layers of subcontracting that hid key details about who was getting paid for what.
Ms. Dutt told MPs last week that the theme of the concerns they raised with the CBSA was with respect to “systemic corruption.”
Botler’s 2022 report to the CBSA specifically raised concerns about the close relationship between Mr. Firth and the CBSA’s then director-general, Cameron MacDonald. Mr. MacDonald’s name appears on contracting documents related to both the Botler project and ArriveCan.
Mr. MacDonald has been invited to appear next week. In an Oct. 1 e-mail to The Globe, Mr. MacDonald said he did not engage in any wrongdoing, was not aware of any misconduct and followed federal ethics rules for public servants.
Conservative MP Michael Barrett asked Mr. Firth Thursday whether he had ever met with government officials outside of government offices or outside business hours.
“No, I have not,” Mr. Firth replied.
About 45 minutes later, Mr. Barrett followed up.
“This clever act that you’re trying to put on is not fooling anyone,” Mr. Barrett said. “Have you ever met with government officials or anyone employed by government in a private residence? Yes or no?”
“Yes,” Mr. Firth replied. “I don’t know the exact meeting you’re referencing. It’s not like I’ve had hundreds of these things. The truth is, I don’t know which one you’re talking about.”
“I want to know about all of them,” Mr. Barrett replied. Mr. Firth asked for a direct question to be submitted in writing.
At another point, Mr. Firth responded to another question from Mr. Barrett and said: “I don’t know if Cameron MacDonald has a cottage.”
Later in the meeting, Conservative MP Larry Brock followed up and asked Mr. Firth if he would like to reflect on that answer.
“Yes. Mr. MacDonald has never referred to it as a cottage. It’s a chalet,” Mr. Firth said, which caused some MPs to erupt with laughter in the committee room.
“I am so grateful for that clarification Mr. Firth,” Mr. Brock replied. “Are you kidding me?”
Mr. Firth later said he knew about the chalet because Mr. MacDonald had referenced it during a conversation.
Botler has created a software tool that assists victims of sexual harassment. It has existing federal funding through Justice Canada. However, Mr. Firth reached out to Botler in late 2019 on behalf of Mr. MacDonald and the CBSA to say the agency was interested in a pilot project for the software.
The Botler team did not work on ArriveCan, but the three IT staffing firms they were involved with were also among the top recipients of outsourcing work related to ArriveCan. Both projects were overseen by some of the same senior public servants, including Mr. MacDonald.
Mr. Firth arranged discussions with CBSA officials but also spent months organizing meetings for Botler with senior contracting officials throughout the public service in an effort to have Botler’s software procured as a government-wide service.
Mr. Firth said he was never paid for any of his work with Botler, but was hoping to be paid in the event that Botler’s software was purchased more broadly by the public service.
When called to appear last year before MPs to answer questions related to ArriveCan, Mr. Firth said his company has worked with more than 20 departments over the past two years. He said his company has no stand-alone office and neither he nor his business partner Darren Anthony perform IT work themselves. Instead, they hire subcontractors to do the work in exchange for a fee of between 15 per cent and 30 per cent of contract values.
Liberal MP Irek Kusmierczyk asked Mr. Firth to respond to Botler’s actions and allegations.
“Help us explain those actions from your vantage point and how we should be viewing those actions,” he said.
“It’s very discouraging,” Mr. Firth said. “The truth is I did everything I could to get them contracts, to get the word out there, get them to help Canadians.”