The Liberals blocked a senior adviser to the Prime Minister from testifying about the WE Charity controversy on Monday and instead sent House Leader Pablo Rodriguez to answer questions about an affair that he told committee he had little involvement in.
The House of Commons passed a motion on Thursday calling for Rick Theis, the Prime Minister’s director of policy and cabinet affairs, to appear at the ethics committee on Monday; for Amitpal Singh, the Deputy Prime Minister’s policy adviser, to appear on Wednesday; and for Ben Chin, the Prime Minister’s senior adviser, to appear on April 8.
“We fundamentally disagree with the decision of the Opposition to use its powers to intimidate and mistreat staff members who work in political offices,” Mr. Rodriguez told the committee Monday.
Bloc Québécois MP Rhéal Fortin said the concept of ministerial responsibility should not prevent MPs from calling witnesses who can establish key facts, which he said Mr. Rodriguez was often unable to do on Monday.
“Well, the facts, the only way to get them is to hear directly from the people who are implicated in this,” Mr. Fortin said.
The Liberals voted against the House motion but it passed with the unanimous support of the four opposition parties. All three staff members are named in documents regarding the cancelled Canada Student Service Grant. The WE organization was awarded the contract to administer the $543.5-million grant program but the entire plan was tossed after it triggered the Prime Minister’s third conflict of interest controversy in five years.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former finance Minister Bill Morneau both had family members with direct financial ties to WE Charity when cabinet awarded it the contract to administer the program through an uncompetitive process. Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau later apologized for failing to recuse themselves from the decision.
The Liberals and senior civil servants say cabinet awarded the work to WE on the advice of the public service. The opposition has been pushing to verify that by hearing directly from political staff.
Mr. Rodriguez said the Liberal government would ignore the parliamentary order for the staff to appear. Similarly, the Liberals have decided to ignore calls for the Defence Minister’s former chief of staff to testify at the defence committee.
“Unelected political staff members are accountable to members of cabinet. And cabinet is accountable to Parliament,” he told the committee, adding that the Conservatives subscribed to the same position when they were in government.
The Liberals have inconsistently applied that policy, though, with Mr. Trudeau’s chief of staff testifying at the finance committee just last year. And on March 8, a Liberal MP called for Ray Novak to testify at the defence committee based on his time in the Prime Minister’s Office under Stephen Harper.
Mr. Fortin asked Mr. Rodriguez to point him to the rules that allow the minister to contravene an order of the House of Commons, and said the committee should report the failed appearance of Mr. Theis to the House.
It’s considered “good form” for the accountable minister to testify rather than staff, said Philippe Lagassé, an associate professor at Carleton University who studies the Canadian government and the Westminster system. But he added there’s nothing that prevents a committee from calling whomever they want.
“There are no formal rules stating that political staff can’t be called to testify before committee,” he said.
Mr. Rodriguez said he spoke with Mr. Theis on Sunday and Monday to prepare for the committee meeting but was often unable to answer committee questions.
Asked whether Mr. Theis had been contacted by the RCMP or by an officer of Parliament, Mr. Rodriguez said “not that I know of.”
Mr. Theis had a meeting on May 5 with WE Charity co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger and the organization’s director of government and stakeholder relations, Sofia Marquez. That meeting fell on the same date that WE was able to retroactively claim expenses. Asked whether that was a coincidence, Mr. Rodriguez said “it was only one conversation.”
Conservative MP Jacques Gourde asked the minister why he showed up at committee if he “couldn’t provide more clarity.”
NDP MP Charlie Angus said his efforts to get the final information to wrap up the committee’s study of the WE controversy have been met by an “angry stonewall” from the Liberals.
At a March 15 committee hearing, Craig Kielburger was asked to explain why he sent Mr. Chin a LinkedIn message on June 27 where he thanked him for “helping shape our latest program with the gov’t.”
Mr. Chin replied: “Great to hear from you Craig. Let’s get our young working!”
Craig Kielburger said the message was sent by his assistant.
The Conservatives said the messages appeared to contradict the government’s claim that Liberal politicians and staffers were not involved in the decision to have the management of the proposed student volunteer program outsourced to the WE organization.
Similarly, last June, the National Post reported on a June 12 video conference call in which Marc Kielburger told WE staff about the organization running the student grant program.
“The Prime Minister’s Office kindly called us and said, ‘you know that announcement we just made? Would you be interested in helping us actually implement it?’ ”
Marc Kielburger later said he misspoke and that the call had come from a federal public servant.
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