Liberal MPs have been using parliamentary funds to pay for services from companies that provide two of the governing party’s most important digital campaign operations, and that also run its powerful voter-contact database.
An examination of expenses filed in the House of Commons shows 149 Liberal MPs, or 97 per cent of the caucus, made payments out of their office budgets to Data Sciences Inc., founded by a close friend of Justin Trudeau.
And 152 Liberal MPs made payments to NGP VAN, a political-campaign software used by the U.S. Democratic Party and licensed by the Liberals to run their Liberalist database.
The issue of expenses claimed by Liberal members of Parliament raises ethical questions about whether taxpayer funds are being spent for partisan political purposes.
The party denied, however, that MPs’ office budgets were paying for the two database services to help identify voters and issues into the runup to a general election expected this fall.
These payments were reported in MPs’ expense filings for the fourth quarter of the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which ended in March, but some of the spending dates from earlier periods.
“This system is for constituency casework management in a parliamentary context only,” Melissa Cotton, managing director of the Liberal Research Bureau (LRB), said in an e-mailed statement. The LRB is a parliamentary funded research organization. The Conservatives, Bloc Québécois and NDP have comparable groups.
“In an effort to assist our caucus members, the LRB facilitates the administration of these parliamentary contracts for ease of billing, training and support. The contract is billed to individual MPs.”
While Ms. Cotton explained that NGP VAN had been modified to handle constituency work, she provided few details on what Data Sciences does for Liberal MPs. In a later e-mail to The Globe and Mail, she said Data Sciences provides “support and technical guidance to MPs’ offices” in using NGP VAN software.
Liberalist is a modified version of NGP VAN Vote Builder software used by the Democratic Party, which the Liberal Party licenses and manages. Montreal-based Data Sciences Inc. provides technical support for Liberalist.
Data Sciences Inc 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 swiftly adjust digital advertising during elections.
Liberal MP Wayne Easter said the modified NGP VAN tracks constituency casework, correspondence and identifies the occupations of constituents.
However, Mr. Easter said MPs are instructed by the party to be careful in how they handle this system, to avoid misusing information for partisan and electoral gain.
“There is a constituency program that really does help with constituency work. It is a good system, so you can track farmers or fishermen if you want feedback on legislation,” he said. “There is a political component and there is a firewall between the two, so you can’t basically use constituency side for your political side.”
Mr. Easter was unable to explain what Data Sciences did for his office in managing social media.
“I do my own,” he said. “I quite honestly don’t know what [Data Sciences] does,” he added.
Liberal MP John McKay also said he had no idea why money from his office budget was going to Mr. Pitfield’s company.
“I haven’t got a clue,” he said. “I can’t explain it. I vaguely recall once a year we write a cheque and it’s always been explained that it is within the ethical guidelines, so we all kind of sign up for it and it goes into some oblivion.”
The information about the two contracts had not been previously disclosed on the House of Commons website until new financial-disclosure rules recently came into force. A Liberal Party source said most of its MPs have been paying for the two data-base related services since 2016, which is co-ordinated through the Liberal Research Bureau.
The total cost to taxpayers claimed by Liberal MPs for NGP VAN in their fourth-quarter reports was $74,290. The amount MPs collectively claimed for Data Sciences was more than $30,000.
Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett said taxpayers’ money should not be going to digital companies that also work for the Liberal Party.
“So, we have a situation where taxpayers dollars are being used to effectively subsidize the political digital operations of the Liberal Party of Canada,” he said. “These are taxpayer office budgets paying subscription fees for running the Liberal Party’s ‘black ops’ and their election software.”
Mr. Barrett said he does not believe the Liberals when they say there is a firewall to guard against constituency information being used to help them politically.
Braeden Caley, communications director for the Liberal Party, denied that MPs’ budgets were funding partisan activities.
“All of the Liberal Party’s digital engagement fully complies with the Canada Elections Act,” he said. “The Liberal Party of Canada continues to work with Data Sciences on a wide variety of innovative digital-engagement programs – just as we have through both the successful campaigns of 2015 and 2019.
Mr. Pitfield’s wife, Anna Gainey, was the president of the Liberal Party, and is also close to the Trudeau family. The Pitfields and the 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.
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