Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Auditor general Karen Hogan waits in a hallway to begin a news conference about a report her office released, on Feb. 12 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Internal investigators at the federal procurement department are reviewing contracting concerns related to ArriveCan and officials told MPs Wednesday they are prepared to seek repayment from private contractors if they’ve overbilled.

Public Works and Government Services officials also said they are scaling back the use of sole-source contracting and vowed to increase scrutiny over what the government is actually buying when it pays contractor invoices.

The government operations committee, which has been reviewing ArriveCan and contracting issues for months, along with the public accounts committee, are both holding hearings this week focused on last week’s report by Auditor-General Karen Hogan.

The Auditor-General found a “glaring disregard” for basic management practices as the cost to build and maintain the app grew to an estimated $59.5-million. The report said two-person IT staffing firm GCStrategies, which received $19.1-million to work on the app, was directly involved in setting narrow terms for a $25-million contract it ultimately won.

A Conservative motion to issue a summons for GCStrategies partners Kristian Firth and Darren Anthony to appear in response to the Auditor-General’s report within 21 days, with the possibility of having them arrested by the sergeant-at-arms if they refuse, ultimately passed late Wednesday after extensive debate.

The Globe reported in December that the two men defied an earlier summons, citing mental health concerns. Mr. Firth has previously testified twice.

Liberal MP Irek Kusmierczyk said he takes health matters very seriously and expressed concern with the “nuclear” option attached to the summons request.

“Asking the sergeant-at-arms to take into custody the witnesses is a drastic move,” he said.

However, all parties ultimately supported the motion after it was amended to include various conditions, including pledges of offering GCStrategies unspecified accessibility accommodations.

Earlier in the day, Catherine Poulin, who heads the procurement department’s oversight branch, told the public accounts committee that Ottawa does have the power to recoup funds. She said internal investigators are going through allegations and will ultimately create a report on their findings.

“We have multiple teams that are working on that. We’re taking this information seriously,” she said.

If elements of criminality are found through this process, she said they will be referred to the RCMP.

“Upon completion of a thorough analysis that demonstrates that we have been overcharged, overbilled, that there was some element for which we have paid too much, we have the ability to recover the funds from the suppliers and it’s in our regular practice to do so,” she said.

Public Works is ultimately in charge of federal contracting but often shares that responsibility with what it calls “client” departments. That was the case with ArriveCan, which was led by the Canada Border Services Agency. Contracting was jointly approved by both departments.

The CBSA has said it is conducting an internal investigation into contracting misconduct allegations that were not directly focused on ArriveCan but involved contractors and public servants who did work on the app, including GCStrategies.

The agency has referred those allegations to the RCMP, which is also investigating. The RCMP also said that it is reviewing the findings contained in last week’s report on ArriveCan spending by Ms. Hogan.

Border agency internal investigator Michel Lafleur completed a preliminary statement of facts report in December.

In January, two senior public servants who previously worked together at the CBSA on ArriveCan and the other project that spurred the agency’s investigation were suspended without pay.

Cameron MacDonald, who is now an assistant deputy minister at Health Canada, and Antonio Utano, a director-general at the Canada Revenue Agency, have asked the Federal Court to shut down the agency’s internal probe. They say the process is unfair and biased.

Mr. MacDonald and Mr. Utano are scheduled to appear before the government operations committee Thursday for three hours.

The CBSA’s Lafleur report was provided to MPs earlier this month in confidence. Liberal MP and committee vice-chair Majid Jowhari described the report’s contents as “scary” and recommended suspending further hearings until the CBSA’s investigation is complete. However, the committee has since agreed to continue holding some related meetings.

Last week’s Auditor-General’s report said key information related to ArriveCan was often missing, including descriptions of how contracting decisions were reached.

On Wednesday, Access to Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard told MPs that the CBSA is the department with the most complaints and the most active investigations.

She said the spike in complaints from Canadians requesting government documents under the access laws appears to be linked to the agency’s role in the immigration process.

Her office has launched an investigation into the agency’s handling of access to information requests to find the root cause of the complaints and is planning to table a report in May.

The parliamentary watchdog said she could not comment on a report that former agency vice-president Minh Doan is the subject of an internal complaint alleging that he took unusual actions that led to the destruction of e-mails.

“It’s definitely a concern when we hear allegations like this,” she said.

Speaking generally, she said that if her team finds potential criminality, it can report this to the Attorney-General, who is Liberal cabinet minister Arif Virani.

“Unfortunately, I cannot refer directly to the RCMP,” she said, noting that she has previously called for legislative changes that would allow her to do so. She said that in such a scenario, she could also issue a report to Parliament which would make the referral to the Attorney-General public knowledge.

Ms. Maynard also said she had pre-emptively warned departments at the onset of the pandemic not to let proper record keeping slide as the federal public service switched to working from home, but some of them did.

She said cabinet ministers are ultimately responsible for ensuring the Access to Information Act is respected. She said some departments have strong leadership and a culture of properly recording decisions.

“If a leader believes in access and believes in transparency, the rest of the department will work towards that,” she said.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe