The spouse of the Prime Minister’s chief of staff took part in a meeting with the Crown corporation responsible for the government’s commercial rent-relief program after the company where he works was awarded the contract to administer the program, and before the contract was extended.
Robert Silver, husband of Justin Trudeau’s most senior adviser, Katie Telford, started working at independent mortgage finance company MCAP in January, according to his LinkedIn profile. The social media page describes him as the company’s senior vice-president of strategy, policy and risk.
MCAP was awarded a $56-million contract to administer the federal government’s Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) program, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). Spokesperson Angelina Ritacco said the contract was signed on May 15. The program was extended in July, making it worth up to $84-million.
She said Mr. Silver was part of a June 22 meeting with a CMHC communications staffer and MCAP regarding the public reporting of the application numbers.
“We are not aware of any other communications from Robert Silver,” Ms. Ritacco said.
“Robert Silver was not involved in contract negotiations and has not been involved with the delivery of services related to CECRA,” she added.
Ms. Ritacco said the $84-million is the maximum that MCAP can receive in fees for running the program. The amount covers the design and maintenance of an application portal, processing applications, providing services to applicants and disbursing approved funds.
“The amounts to be paid to MCAP are dependent on application volumes as CMHC is charged a fixed fee per application,” Ms. Ritacco said. She said the contract was awarded to MCAP after CMHC requested proposals from two financial institutions. “MCAP presented a stronger proposal and the lowest cost of the two, which lead to the execution of a contract agreement with CMHC,” Ms. Ritacco said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the program in April. It opened for applications on May 25.
The Finance Minister’s office said cabinet had no role in awarding MCAP the contract or the decision to outsource the program.
“CMHC chose to engage the services of a sub-administrator as CMHC does not have the internal capacity to stand up the program in short order,” Ms. Ritacco said.
MCAP’s website says the company manages more than $100-billion in assets and works in residential and commercial mortgages as well as development finance.
Mr. Silver did not reply to requests for comment on Friday. The Globe and Mail first contacted him on Thursday, but at the time was not yet aware of his meeting with the CMHC.
Mr. Silver declined to provide any comment to The Globe about his role at MCAP.
“I have no interest in talking to you about any of that,” Mr. Silver said on Thursday. Asked if he has had any meetings with the government, he said, “I am not talking about my job and that’s the end of my answers.”
Mr. Silver’s LinkedIn page was deleted on Thursday, and reinstated on Friday. Officials at MCAP did not respond to requests for comment.
The offices for Finance Minister Bill Morneau, and Families, Children and Social Development Minister Ahmed Hussen, who is responsible for CMHC, said Mr. Silver has had no contact with their offices or ministers.
“MCAP’s role as administrator of CECRA was never discussed or approved by the minister or his office, nor were there any conversations with MCAP, including Rob Silver,” Mr. Morneau’s spokesperson Maéva Proteau said.
The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to a request for comment on whether Mr. Silver had contacted any staff in Mr. Trudeau’s office.
Ms. Telford is subject to the Conflict of Interest Act, but her public disclosure page has not been updated since May, 2019. The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement that the office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner told Ms. Telford she did not need an ethics screen when the PMO first raised Mr. Silver’s job with the commissioner in January.
Mr. Trudeau’s spokesperson, Alex Wellstead, said Ms. Telford voluntarily established her own screen “out of an abundance of caution.” To establish an ethics screen, individuals are assigned to handle questions or issues around a topic that would otherwise fall to the person who may be in conflict.
“This screen applies to anything related to MCAP and it has been diligently followed since it was implemented. Ms. Telford has not been involved in any discussions related to MCAP,” Mr. Wellstead said.
“As recently as last week, Katie contacted the Commissioner’s office to submit her annual review, she again raised the question of MCAP & whether any additional action needed to be taken. The advice stayed the same,” Mr. Trudeau’s director of communications Cameron Ahmad said.
The Prime Minister’s Office provided The Globe with a screenshot of an e-mail from a compliance adviser with the commissioner’s office dated Jan. 13. It says “based on the information provided, it does not seem likely that [Ms. Telford] would have dealings with MCAP, so the opportunity [for a possible conflict] would be very remote.
“As such, no additional compliance measure would be required at this time,” wrote Lyne Salloum.
A separate screenshot also provided by the Prime Minister’s Office shows an e-mail sent to senior PMO staff on Jan. 20 announcing the voluntary ethics screen. The screen would be managed by deputy clerk of the Privy Council Office Catherine Blewett and Marci Surkes, executive director of policy and cabinet affairs in the PMO.
“We are requesting your diligent co-operation in applying the voluntary screen and ensuring that Ms. Telford is abstained from any participation in any matters or decisions relating to MCAP,” read the e-mail from Maxime Dea, who was director of issues management for the PMO at the time.
A senior official said Ms. Blewett and Ms. Surkes also dealt with the CMHC to maintain the ethics screen.
The Globe is not disclosing the official’s name because they were not permitted to speak publicly.
Ethics screens that are required by the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner are included in officials’ public disclosures. The commissioner’s office said it can’t give any comment on why an ethics screen wouldn’t be needed in this case.
“We can’t give out information about any dealings our office may have with Katie Telford or other public office holders, as those communications are covered by the Conflict of Interest Act’s confidentiality requirements. All of the information that the commissioner can make public, including any conflict of interest screens that have been recommended by our office and agreed to by a reporting public office holder, appears in the public registry,” communications manager Margot Booth said.
David Zussman, an adjunct professor at University of Victoria School of Public Administration, said concerns around conflicts of interest and perceptions of conflict of interest are a “problem endemic to Ottawa, with professional couples having important jobs.”
But he said: “I don’t think one can automatically assume that there is a conflict.”
To avoid any possible issues, he said his “solution would be to rely on a third party to test this quickly,” which is a role for the Ethics Commissioner. The time to notify the commissioner should be “before the contract is issued, it’s when the consideration is given to various potential organizations to do the work,” Prof. Zussman said.
The Prime Minister’s Office did not reply to a request for comment about whether Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion was notified that MCAP was working on the government program or being considered to administer it.
With reports from Robert Fife and Steven Chase
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