The Liberal Research Bureau, a taxpayer-funded office that supports Trudeau government MPs, used parliamentary money to hire a company that plays a key role in the Liberal Party’s re-election efforts.
Commons expense records show the bureau paid more than $75,000 to Data Sciences Inc. in the period between Aug. 1, 2019, and Oct. 1, 2020.
Data Sciences, a Montreal-based company, is owned by Tom Pitfield, a childhood friend of Mr. Trudeau who ran the Liberals’ digital operations in the 2015 and 2019 elections. He is expected to take on the same role in the next general election. Mr. Pitfield’s company is known for using algorithms to target and adjust digital advertising during elections.
This spending is in addition to separate payments made from the taxpayer-funded office budgets of Liberal MPs to Data Sciences and another campaign-related company, NGP VAN, which makes software used by the U.S. Democratic Party that the Liberals license to run their Liberalist election database.
As The Globe reported earlier this week, Liberal MPs claimed a total of $74,290 in payments to NGP VAN in their fourth-quarter expense reports for the 2020 to 2021 fiscal year. The amount MPs collectively claimed for payments to Data Sciences was more than $30,000.
These payments to companies that play key roles in the Liberal Party’s digital campaign operations raise ethical questions about whether taxpayer funds are being spent for partisan political purposes.
Mr. Trudeau’s Open and Accountable Government policy urges his ministers to uphold “the highest standards of honesty and impartiality,” and says “both the performance of your official duties and the arrangement of your private affairs should bear the closest public scrutiny.” The policy adds that this is an “obligation that is not fully discharged by simply acting within the law.”
The Liberals say the spending is purely for constituency outreach services, which is an allowed expense. They say that there is an inviolable wall between the help Data Services and NGP VAN provide members of Parliament with managing constituency casework and the voter-outreach assistance these companies provide the party during political campaigns.
Melissa Cotton, managing director of the Liberal Research Bureau (LRB), said the more than $75,000 her office spent on Data Sciences is for technical support and training related to software that “assists MPs in their parliamentary engagement with constituents.”
“This would not be dissimilar to specialized support for other technology and software that MPs’ offices use to assist and communicate with their constituents, much of which is also provided to MPs of all parties by outside experts or professionals,” Ms. Cotton said.
In the House of Commons Question Period on Tuesday, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole criticized the Liberals for awarding taxpayer-funded contracts to Data Sciences, calling Mr. Pitfield the Prime Minister’s “lifetime” friend.
“Mr. Pitfield is not just the Prime Minister’s buddy; he is also married to the former Liberal Party president. It certainly pays to be a Liberal insider in Ottawa these days,” Mr. O’Toole said.
The Prime Minister replied that the data-service contracts were not for partisan purposes, but to help Liberal MPs keep track of their constituent concerns and issues that need to be addressed.
“We have a data-management system that is entirely separate from the functioning of political parties,” he said. “We followed all the rules that guide the separation of politics from constituents.”
As The Globe reported earlier this week, recent expense reports filed in the House of Commons show 149 Liberal MPs, or 97 per cent of the caucus, made payments out of their office budgets to Data Sciences. And 152 Liberal MPs made payments to NGP VAN.
Mr. Pitfield’s wife, Anna Gainey, was president of the Liberal Party from 2014 to 2018, and is also close to the Trudeau family. The Pitfields and Trudeaus vacationed together at the Aga Khan’s resort in the Bahamas over the Christmas holidays in 2016. The Ethics Commissioner ruled a year later that Mr. Trudeau had violated conflict-of-interest rules by accepting the free holiday.
In response to questions raised by the Conservatives, the LRB on Tuesday pointed out that the Opposition has also paid campaign-related operatives with public funds. Last summer, the Opposition Leader’s Office paid $15,000 to Conservative analyst Stephen Taylor for political and digital services; $8,000 to Ian Brodie, former chief of staff under prime minister Stephen Harper; and $18,000 to Conservative communications expert Steve Outhouse, who later joined the office as deputy chief of staff.
The Conservatives say this is a false comparison. “Unlike Justin Trudeau’s relationship with Thomas Pitfield, none of these individuals are personal friends with the Leader of the Opposition. No one in caucus has been instructed to retain their services and these individuals were fulfilling parliamentary functions and duties,” said Mathew Clancy, manager of media relations for the Office of the Leader of the Official Opposition.
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