The WE Charity says it has so far repaid the bulk of the money it received for the now-cancelled agreement with the government to run a student volunteer program.
The group has returned $22 million out of the $30 million handed out by the government when that deal was signed, and is waiting on the government to accept the remaining $8 million, a spokesperson for the WE Charity said in a statement.
“When WE Charity and ESDC signed the Canada Student Service Grant contribution agreement, WE Charity received a transfer of funds into a protected account to pay eligible expenses. WE Charity never accessed those funds,” the organization said.
“WE Charity has repeatedly communicated to ESDC the desire to return the remaining funds as soon as the government is able to accept the transfer.”
ESDC refers to Employment and Social Development Canada, which is the government department that recommended WE Charity to administer a student grant program initially billed at $912 million.
Documents filed with the House of Commons finance committee during its probe into whether that decision was influenced by the financial ties between the group and the families of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau showed the value of the program at roughly $500 million.
Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion is investigating both Trudeau and Morneau for not recusing themselves from cabinet discussions on that decision despite their family’s ties.
In addition to that finance committee probe, the ethics committee is also examining the matter and heard from several top officials about the issue on Tuesday.
Ian Shugart, clerk of the Privy Council, said the due diligence on WE Charity focused on its ability to deliver the program and did not probe the group’s financial situation and governance structure prior to recommending them to administer the program.
Shugart said senior officials at ESDC told him they had a track record with the organization, which reassured him about the charity, and also confirmed that Trudeau initially pushed back on the proposal to award the contract to WE.
Trudeau said during his own testimony before the finance committee that he did so knowing his family’s connections with the organization would lead to significant scrutiny.
Officials at that point went back and examined whether WE Charity could administer a Canada-wide student volunteer program and whether it could deliver these services in both official languages.
Other issues relating to WE Charity’s organization, board of directors, financial state and governance structure were not considered at that time, Shugart said.
When it came back to cabinet two weeks later, Shugart says, he believed the due diligence undertaken was sufficient.
The ethics committee on Tuesday also heard from Youth Minister Bardish Chagger and Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough.
Chagger, the minister responsible for the now-abandoned program, told the committee prior to WE Charity’s statement that she did not know how much of the money paid out so far had been repaid.
The committee is conducting a review of the existing safeguards in place to prevent conflicts of interest when the federal government is deciding how to spend taxpayers’ dollars.
But opposition MPs have focused more pointedly on the government’s agreement with WE Charity.
Qualtrough is in charge of the department whose public servants concluded they were not capable of delivering the program and who, according to the government, recommended that WE Charity was the only group capable of delivering it.
She told the ethics committee that she did not know until the proposal was scheduled to come before cabinet on May 5 that it was WE Charity that was being recommended to run the program.
She also said she did not know the distinctions between the WE Charity’s various entities that were being named to administer the program and added that while she believes both Trudeau and Morneau should have recused themselves from the talks, she accepts their apologies for not doing so.
Trudeau has been a featured speaker at six WE Day events and his wife hosts a podcast for the group, for which they have not been paid. However, the charity has covered some of Sophie Gregoire Trudeau’s travel expenses and has paid Trudeau’s mother and brother almost $300,000 for speaking at numerous WE events over the years and reimbursed them for some $200,000 in expenses.
One of Morneau’s daughters works for the organization, another has spoken at its events and his wife has donated $100,000 to it. Morneau also revealed that WE Charity covered $41,000 in expenses for him and his family in 2017 for trips to view two of its humanitarian projects in Ecuador and Kenya.
Morneau wrote a cheque to reimburse the organization for those expenses shortly before testifying two weeks ago at the Commons finance committee, which is also attempting to get to the bottom of the affair.
Members of the finance committee are waiting to see some 5,000 pages of documents turned over by the government Saturday on the WE controversy.
The documents are being vetted by committee lawyers to ensure they don’t disclose personal information or cabinet secrets.
–With files from The Canadian Press