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WE Charity paid U.S. consultants who provide ‘combative media training’: tax records

WE scandal: Who are Craig and Marc Kielburger?
WATCH: WE scandal — Who are Craig and Marc Kielburger?

WE Charity paid over US$600,000 to American political consulting firms, including one linked to the Republican Party that specializes in “combative media training,” according to tax documents.

Internal Revenue Service filings for the fiscal year ending in August 2019 show the U.S. arm of the Toronto-based charity paid three firms a total of US$605,853, including $130,000 to Firehouse Strategies.

Read more: What is the WE Charity scandal and who are the Kielburger brothers?

That firm was founded in 2016 by three veterans of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, and has been a regular pollster for that political party.

Although the Firehouse website says the firm’s team “curates authentic content from media sources and influencers trusted by our target audience,” the site also says its services includes “defensive/combative media training” and “reputation management.”

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Profiles of the firm cite the effect President Donald Trump had on political communications during the 2016 campaign and say the firm’s founders adopted Trump’s aggressive methods for themselves.

Requests for comment from Firehouse Strategies and members of its staff have not yet been returned.

WE Charity co-founders testify at committee hearing
WE Charity co-founders testify at committee hearing

In 2018 and 2019, opinion articles written by authors with ties to Republican political organizations were published on Canadian and American news websites that were critical of media outlet Canadaland, pointing to the outlet as an example of “fake news” in Canada.

One of the authors, Ben Proler, also worked for Rubio’s campaign and now serves on the board of Maverick PAC, which focuses on electing young Republicans to federal political office.

Another writer, Gus Portela, served as a delegate for then-presidential nominee Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

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Read more: WE Charity agreed to run student grant program as ‘favour’ to Canada: Kielburgers

Canadaland has published critical articles and investigations into WE Charity over the past two years, including allegations that the charity partnered with companies that allegedly used international child labour.

WE Charity has denied those and other allegations and has issued libel notices to Canadaland, though it has stopped short of filing any lawsuits.

While the op-ed articles have stopped short of mentioning WE Charity by name, they have alluded to Canadaland’s coverage by naming the reporter behind much of the coverage, Jaren Kerr, saying he was behind a story “about a global nonprofit” that “garnered attention.”

Kielburger brothers testify, defending WE, denying financial trouble
Kielburger brothers testify, defending WE, denying financial trouble

Canadaland itself has questioned why multiple articles critical of its journalism appeared to be written by authors with ties to the Republican Party.

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Jesse Brown, Canadaland’s publisher, told Global News that WE Charity should be transparent about whether Firehouse was hired to discredit its journalism and journalists he hires.

“The founders of Firehouse Strategies have bragged about their Trump-inspired tactics that include planting negative stories about their clients’ perceived enemies,” he said.

“Why did the U.S. arm of WE Charity hire such a firm?”

Read more: Ethics commissioner sets sights on Morneau as WE Charity grant probe expands

While WE Charity is based in Canada, it also holds WE Day fundraising events in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, and has worked in communities around the world.

The IRS tax filing says the charity’s U.S. arm, which is based in Williamsville, New York, earned $31.1 million in total revenue by the end of the fiscal year ending in August 2019 — up from $18.2 million the previous year.

WE Charity has yet to respond to requests for comment about why Firehouse and the other firms were hired.

Besides Firehouse, the charity also paid $297,570 to 202 Strategies, a consulting firm founded by strategist and pollster Stephan Miller. Miller once worked for Democratic political operative James Carville and his wife, Republican strategist Mary Matalin.

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WE scandal: Co-founders Craig, Marc Kielburger defend taking on student grant program
WE scandal: Co-founders Craig, Marc Kielburger defend taking on student grant program

202 Strategies boasts on its website that it helps clients “win campaigns,” “communicate effectively” and “turn crisis into opportunity.”

The final firm paid by WE Charity was David Baum and Associates, which received a total of $178,283. Baum, who describes himself as a “conversation architect and consultant,” includes multiple mentions and photos of his work with WE on his website.

In 2015, WE Charity co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger wrote an op-ed for Postmedia on male mentors, and specifically cited Baum as a “trusted friend” who has guided their careers.

Read more: WE Charity grant agreement planned to spend roughly half of promised amount: documents

“On long walks with David, we cover everything from staffing strategies to our work-life balance and relationships. We always walk away with several light bulbs above our heads and several loads off our shoulders,” the brothers wrote.

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In a testimonial included on the homepage of Baum’s website, Craig Kielburger is quoted as saying of the consultant, “An invaluable mentor over many years. We couldn’t have done it without him.”

Requests for comment to both 202 Strategies and Baum have yet to be returned.

WE scandal: MP Angus says ‘lack of accountability’ makes it hard to believe Craig, Marc Kielburger
WE scandal: MP Angus says ‘lack of accountability’ makes it hard to believe Craig, Marc Kielburger

An ongoing Parliamentary ethics inquiry is seeking to determine whether the federal government engaged in a conflict of interest by awarding WE Charity a contract to administer a $900-million grant program to student volunteers amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has come under fire after it was revealed his mother, brother and wife each received payments from the charity for various speaking events over the last several years.

Last week, Finance Minister Bill Morneau told a House of Commons committee he had recently reimbursed WE Charity more than $41,000 to cover travel expenses incurred when he, his wife and their daughters took part in trips with the organization.

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Both Morneau and Trudeau have publicly apologized for failing to recuse themselves from the contract talks.

Read more: Major corporations suspend, reassess WE Charity sponsorships amid controversy

On Tuesday, Craig and Marc Kielburger testified before the committee, saying that the organization had good intentions when accepting the sole-source contract.

The brothers repeatedly declined to directly answer a question from Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre during their testimony on whether WE’s lawyers hired a private investigator to “look into” Canadaland’s Brown and Kerr.

Brown released a document earlier this month appearing to show that Investigative Solutions Network, a Toronto investigation service, was hired to “conduct a discrete background check” on Brown and an “online investigation” into Brown and Kerr.

An email appearing to be from Peter Downard, the lawyer mentioned in the document, said the investigation was “a typical example of due diligence in advance of commencing a libel action.”

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— With files from Hannah Jackson