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Ritika Dutt and Amir Morv, co-founders of Botler, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Aug. 31. Ms. Dutt and Mr. Morv allege that the CBSA urged them to work with a two-person IT staffing firm called GCStrategies, but say they were later shocked to discover that the contract for their work was run through a company called Dalian without their knowledge.Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

Current and former senior officials at the Canada Border Services Agency told MPs they were not made aware of a September, 2021, report submitted to the agency alleging contract-related misconduct.

The top officials appeared Tuesday before the House of Commons government operations committee. They were asked about allegations raised by a small Montreal-based software company called Botler that performed contract work for the agency.

The Globe reported earlier this month that Botler’s reporting included concerns about layers of subcontracting that hid key details about who was getting paid for what and cozy ties between private staffing firms and public servants.

Botler co-founders Ritika Dutt and Amir Morv alerted the CBSA to their concerns in September, 2021, and again in a more detailed report sent to more senior officials in November, 2022.

The agency responded to Botler’s second report by launching internal investigations and referring the matter to the RCMP, which is also investigating. But the officials were unable Tuesday to explain why no similar steps were taken after Botler raised their concerns in 2021 in an e-mail to then agency director-general Antonio Utano.

“I believe that the article reported that they referred the matter to Mr. Utano at the time and that matter was not brought to my attention,” said John Ossowski, who was CBSA president from December, 2016, until he retired from the public service in June, 2022. He is now managing director at accounting firm PWC.

Mr. Utano, who has been invited to appear at a later date, reported at the time to then-CBSA vice-president Minh Doan, who is now Chief Technology Officer for the government of Canada.

Mr. Doan told MPs Tuesday that he also only learned of Botler’s allegations recently.

Liberal MP Jenica Atwin asked Mr. Doan whether the behaviour of public servants that are the subject of Botler’s complaints, if true, would breach Public Services and Procurement Canada’s values and ethics code for the public sector.

“I only know the allegations as I’ve read them in The Globe and Mail, but in terms of some of the allegations that are made, would contradict some of the values and ethics for sure, in terms of integrity and conflict of interest. But those are the allegations and I don’t know the state of the investigation,” he said.

The committee also heard Tuesday from current CBSA president Erin O’Gorman, who was named to the position in July, 2022, after several years at Treasury Board.

Ms. O’Gorman said that while she referred Botler’s allegations to the RCMP in December, she also took corrective steps inside the agency.

“Let me assure you that I am not waiting for the outcomes of these processes to take action. It was clear that improvements were required with the procurement function at the agency,” she said. “I’ve increased managerial oversight over the procurement process, and employees with financial delegation and with contracting authorities at headquarters have been directed to retake procurement and financial management courses. I’ve given direction to rebalance our use of internal and external IT.”

Botler performed contract work for the CBSA in 2020 and 2021 related to a pilot project for supporting victims of sexual harassment.

Ms. Dutt and Mr. Morv allege that the CBSA urged them to work with a two-person IT staffing firm called GCStrategies, but say they were later shocked to discover that the contract for their work was run through a company called Dalian without their knowledge. A third company called Coradix, which shares an Ottawa office with Dalian, was also involved. Each layer of subcontracting was proposing to collect substantial commissions and it was unclear how federal funds were being distributed, they said.

Ms. Dutt and Mr. Morv also say IT staffing firms submitted contracting-related documents to the federal government that included a detailed description of a company that doesn’t exist and inflated their work experience.

The three IT staffing firms they were involved with were also among the top recipients of outsourcing work related to ArriveCan, but the Botler team did not work on that app. Both projects were overseen by some of the same senior public servants and both share layers of subcontracting that keep key details from being disclosed to the public.

MPs on the government operations committee have extended their study of the cost of the ArriveCan app to include Botler’s allegations. They will hear from Botler on Thursday.

The Botler pilot project was approved by Mr. Ossowski in a virtual meeting in September, 2020, that was attended by GCStrategies managing partner Kristian Firth.

In recorded conversations from February, 2020, then-CBSA director-general Cameron MacDonald had urged Botler to “please work with Kristian” and “let Kristian work his magic.”

Text messages also show that Mr. MacDonald provided Mr. Firth and Botler with advice during their meeting with Mr. Ossowski.

In a Dec. 8 hearing, Mr. Ossowski told MPs on the government operations committee that he had never met Mr. Firth.

Mr. Ossowski apologized to the committee Tuesday, saying he had no recollection of meeting Mr. Firth and that he answered honestly last year.

“In hindsight, I should have verified my testimony. And I apologize for any confusion that it has created,” he said.

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, told MPs that the government’s reliance on IT staffing firms that then subcontract work to others should be ended.

“Everything should be changed to eliminate these middle people and just have companies who are actually doing the work bidding on the contract,” he said. “The system is the scandal. Expect more scandals, because the system encourages it.”

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