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CBSA President Erin O’Gorman (L) and former president John Ossowski appear before the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates on Parliament Hill Jan. 18 in Ottawa.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The head of private IT staffing company GCStrategies invited key federal officials to an “ArriveCan Whisky Tasting” to celebrate the app’s one-year anniversary and also invited officials for off-site meetings at various breweries and restaurants around Ottawa, according to preliminary records from an investigation into contracting misconduct allegations.

Invitations to the mid-pandemic virtual whisky tasting event were extended to four Canada Border Services Agency officials, including Cameron MacDonald and Antonio Utano, who were suspended without pay this month in connection with the CBSA investigation.

Documents show GCStrategies managing partner Kristian Firth sent an e-mail to the four CBSA officials in April, 2021, for an “ArriveCan Whisky Tasting” that would begin at 5 p.m. on the 21st, a Wednesday, organized by a company called Thirst Responder Mobile Bar.

The company website says it holds online events, such as cocktail courses.

The documents also include call logs, listing hundreds of calls from Mr. Utano and Mr. MacDonald to Mr. Firth between October, 2018, and December, 2022.

The documents were obtained by The Globe and Mail after they were privately presented to the House of Commons committee on government operations by the CBSA.

The committee 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.

CBSA president Erin O’Gorman appeared Thursday before the committee, alongside former president John Ossowski.

Botler did not work on ArriveCan but the company’s two co-founders worked on an unrelated chatbot project with Mr. Firth, Mr. MacDonald and Mr. Utano. Botler submitted a detailed report of alleged contracting misconduct to the CBSA in November, 2022, that questioned the close relationship between CBSA officials and Mr. Firth.

After receiving the 2022 report from Botler, Ms. O’Gorman requested a CBSA internal investigation and referred the allegations to the RCMP. The RCMP is investigating.

Ms. O’Gorman told the committee Thursday that the CBSA investigation to date has raised some concerns. She said the package presented to MPs is part of a preliminary statement of fact and is not a conclusion.

“It shows that the Botler chatbot was not the result of an unsolicited proposal and that there was a pattern of persistent collaboration between certain officials and GCStrategies. They show efforts to circumvent or ignore certain established processes and roles and responsibilities,” she said. “We still don’t know everything. What we do know is not okay. I am concerned and I want to get to the bottom of it.”

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Documents obtained by The Globe and Mail after they were privately presented to the House of Commons committee on government operations by the Canada Border Services Agency.The Globe and Mail

Ms. O’Gorman said it does not appear that contracting rules were properly followed in the Botler case.

“It appears to be inappropriate,” she said.

GCStrategies, a two-person IT staffing company, received $11.2-million to work on ArriveCan. Mr. Firth has said he and his business partner do not perform IT work themselves. Instead, they subcontract the work and collect a commission of between 15 and 30 per cent of the total contract value.

The company has received more than $59-million in funding since 2017.

Bloc Québécois MP Julie Vignola questioned the CBSA president about the documents showing invitations to several offsite meetings involving Mr. Macdonald, Mr. Utano and Mr. Firth.

“In the e-mails you sent us, I see several meetings in breweries,” she said in French. “Is that normal? Is that recommended? Is that efficient? I’m not a beer drinker, but I have questions about meetings in breweries.”

Ms. O’Gorman said the situation raises questions about perceived conflict of interest.

“I personally get lots of invitations. The investigation is under way. We do not have confirmation that the people accepted the invitations. I don’t know if they were there. But certainly the presence of such invitations from suppliers, with no evidence of procurement officers present, it’s a concern. I also have questions.”

Ms. O’Gorman’s appearance is her first public comment since The Globe reported Tuesday that the federal government has suspended the two former senior CBSA officials.

Mr. MacDonald had since become an assistant deputy minister at Health Canada and Mr. Utano had left the CBSA to work as a director-general at the Canada Revenue Agency.

Ms. O’Gorman said the suspension decision was not hers to make as they no longer work in her department. She said she recently sent Health Canada and the CRA a preliminary investigation report and the heads of those two organizations are responsible for personnel decisions in their departments.

Chris Spiteri, a lawyer representing the two suspended officials, 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.

In an e-mail Thursday, Mr. Spiteri said the volume of calls between his clients and Mr. Firth was entirely reasonable given the workload related to ArriveCan. He said the whisky tasting was “a team event to mark a significant milestone achieved” and was entirely virtual.

“It is of significant concern that selective information is released by CBSA again, intended to create a false narrative and discredit Mr. MacDonald and Mr. Utano,” he said. “Regarding meetings out of the office – there were perhaps three for each of Antonio or Cameron. These were all in accordance with CBSA ethical guidelines and disclosed to their superior.”

Mr. Firth did not respond to a request for comment. He has been summoned twice to re-appear before the committee but has informed MPs that he cannot attend due to health reasons.

The Auditor-General is also conducting an audit of ArriveCan spending and has broadened the study to include a review of Botler’s allegations.

Conservative MPs questioned Ms. O’Gorman during the committee about the suspensions of Mr. MacDonald and Mr. Utano, suggesting that it appears the two men are in fact whistle-blowers who are being punished for criticizing their superiors.

Conservative MP Larry Brock told The Globe he had not read the full CBSA document package prior to the meeting, but was concerned upon reviewing them afterward.

“It’s a red flag,” he said, adding that the documents raise more questions for the committee. He described Mr. MacDonald and Mr. Utano as “whistle-blowers” and he questioned why the CBSA does not seem to be subjecting Mr. Doan, the former vice-president, to the same level of scrutiny, given that he was accused by Mr. MacDonald of issuing threats and lying to MPs.

“I guess the bottom line is this study is far from being complete,” he said.

With data analysis by Mahima Singh

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