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WE Charity spent more than US$600,000 on political consultants in Washington last year, including a firm co-founded by a trio of long-time Republican Party strategists.

The U.S. arm of the Toronto-based charity paid three consultancies a total of US$605,853 in the fiscal year ended Aug. 31, 2019, according to filings with the Internal Revenue Service.

The payments included US$130,000 to Firehouse Strategies, which was co-founded by three veterans of Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign: Terry Sullivan, the campaign manager; Alex Conant, the communications director; and Will Holley, the chief adviser on delegate strategy.

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Marc Kielburger, screen left, and Craig Kielburger, screen right, appear as witnesses via videoconference during a House of Commons finance committee in the Wellington Building in Ottawa on on July 28, 2020.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The Firehouse website says it is a “full-service public affairs firm that focuses on delivering targeted persuasion campaigns.” It has become a regular pollster for the Republican Party, and the partners are frequent commentators on the coming presidential contest. It says its team “curates authentic content from media sources and influencers.”

Matt Terrill, a Firehouse partner who served as chief of staff on the Rubio campaign, said the firm’s work for WE mainly involved the annual gatherings the charity describes as “a powerful celebration of individuals who are making an impact.”

“Our efforts were focused on supporting WE Charity’s WE Day events, specifically in key regions in the United States, including Washington, D.C.,” Mr. Terrill said in an e-mail. “We represent several Fortune 100 companies, major trade associations and non-profits.”

WE Day events have been held in 19 cities across Canada, the U.S., Britain and the Caribbean. In the U.S., the arena-sized affairs have taken place in New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis and Seattle. There has yet to be a WE Day in Washington, D.C.

WE officials did not respond to questions about why the charity hired the consultants.

Republican operatives, including two with links to Mr. Rubio’s campaign, wrote a series of articles in 2018 and 2019 that sought to discredit Canadaland, a news outlet that has published investigative stories over the past two years raising questions about WE and its initiatives focusing on child labour and overseas development.

WE has denied any wrongdoing and has been critical of the coverage. Lawyers for the charity issued notices of libel but did not file a lawsuit, Canadaland has said. One of the charity’s lawyers hired a private investigation firm to conduct background checks on two of its journalists, according to Canadaland publisher Jesse Brown, who posted what he described as an excerpt from one of the background checks on his Twitter account this month.

Read Craig Kielburger's opening remarks to the federal finance committee

In testimony before the House of Commons finance committee this week, MP Pierre Poilievre repeatedly asked whether WE’s lawyers had hired a private investigator to look into the Canadaland journalists, but WE founders Craig and Marc Kielburger declined to answer the question.

Last year, before the Firehouse contract came to light, Canadaland questioned why a number of U.S. Republican consultants had written articles attacking the news outlet and whether it was part of an organized campaign.

Among the Republican operatives who attacked Canadaland is Ben Proler, who worked on Mr. Rubio’s presidential campaign and is currently on the board of the U.S. political action committee Maverick PAC, which “provides a platform to engage the next generation of young, conservative professionals in business and politics.”

In an article in a Texas newspaper last year, Mr. Proler criticized Canadaland and complained that the news outlet was “adding to Canada’s growing fake news fears.” The newspaper, The Southeast Texas Record, is a trade publication that primarily covers the state’s legal system.

Mr. Proler was unavailable for comment.

Another U.S. Republican who has tried to discredit Canadaland is Zachary Almond, a former chair of the North Carolina Federation of College Republicans and a former political consultant to Representative Robert Pittenger, one of the leaders of Mr. Rubio’s presidential campaign in North Carolina. In November, 2018, Mr. Almond wrote an article for Red State, a U.S. conservative blog, criticizing Canadaland for “false content.”

Reached by phone Tuesday, he declined to comment.

Mr. Proler’s and Mr. Almond’s Twitter accounts both show connections to Firehouse Strategies. Of the 244 accounts that Mr. Almond follows on Twitter, three of them are Firehouse, Mr. Conant and Mr. Terrill. Of the 118 accounts Mr. Proler follows, three are Mr. Conant, Mr. Sullivan and Firehouse vice-president Brooke Sours. Of the 175 accounts Mr. Terrill followed, one was Mr. Almond – until he unfollowed him Monday.

Mr. Sullivan, in an April, 2019, podcast, said a possible communications strategy is to “figure out who the opponent is … and let’s just go get 18 bad stories about them.” He added: “Our belief is in modern communications you either throw spears or you catch spears. Catching them is no fun.”

Mr. Brown, contacted by The Globe and Mail, said he wants to know whether Firehouse used those tactics against Canadaland. “Firehouse Strategies is known for exactly the kind of covert attack campaigns that Canadaland was targeted by,” he said. “Why did WE use charitable funds to hire such a firm? WE Charity needs to provide transparency.”

WE Charity has been the focus of controversy lately over a federal government contract it was awarded to administer the Canada Student Service Grant. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the program on April 22, and the government revealed in June that WE would run it. The contract was cancelled on July 3 after conflict-of-interest accusations involving Mr. Trudeau and members of his family, who have a long history with the organization.

Read former WE Charity board chair Michelle Douglas’s opening remarks to the federal finance committee

In her testimony before the House of Commons finance committee Tuesday, Michelle Douglas, the former board chair of WE Charity in Canada, cited the complexity and lack of transparency of WE’s operations as some of the reasons she resigned from the board in March.

The IRS filing shows that WE also paid consultancy 202 Strategies US$297,570 during the last fiscal year. The Washington-based firm is headed by Stephan Miller, an Israeli-American pollster and political consultant. “The hallmark of our work is the development of political, media and communications strategies, based on deep insights into your voters, consumers or target audiences gathered through polling and focus groups,” the company says on its website.

Officials at 202 did not respond to questions about their work with WE. On its IRS filing, the charity said all the payments were for “consulting services.”

WE also paid David Baum and Associates US$178,283 in consulting fees in the last fiscal year. Mr. Baum, an organizational psychologist, has been a long-time consultant to WE and highlights the charity on his website. “I partner with exceptional organizations and people and make them better. Jane Goodall, Condé Nast, WE, the Philadelphia Flyers, and Life is Good have all counted on me,” his website says. The site also includes an endorsement from Craig Kielburger: “An invaluable mentor over many years. We couldn’t have done it without him.”

IRS filings show that WE paid Mr. Baum’s firm $644,029 from 2016 to 2019. He has been an adviser to the Kielburgers for more than 15 years. “I stand behind them as people, and WE as an organization, because I have spent thousands of hours with Marc, Craig and their remarkable people,” Mr. Baum writes on his website.

With a report from Jon Horler, special to The Globe and Mail

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