The New Democrats are joining the Conservative party in asking the federal lobbying watchdog to investigate whether the embattled WE Charity organization engaged in “improper lobbying” ahead of the Liberal government’s decision to award the charity a sole-sourced contract to administer a student volunteer grant program.
On Friday, NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus tweeted a letter containing the request to Lobbying Commissioner Nancy Belanger dated Aug. 10, four days before WE Charity told MPs it registered with the federal registry of lobbyists.
“I wrote to her … for an investigation because the more we learnt about (WE’s) government activities, the more concerning it became,” Angus said on Friday.
“We need an investigation here.”
On Thursday, the charity’s executive director defended why WE hadn’t registered previously, saying that in “past years,” WE’s engagement with government was about “one to three per cent of our overall budget and engagement.”
“We thought it was minimal. If I thought that registration was required, we would have done it,” Dalal Al-Waheidi told the House of Commons finance committee, which is probing the government’s decision to have WE administer the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG).
The federal Lobbying Act requires an organization with in-house lobbyists to register their communications with public office holders within two months of the point when its combined lobbying activities, over a one-month period, amount to at least 20 per cent of the work of a single, full-time employee.
In his Aug. 10 letter to Belanger, Angus challenged the argument that WE Charity “do not do enough outreach to government to meet 20 per cent threshold,” noting that WE Charity had employed someone who was responsible for government and stakeholders relations.
Angus also claimed that “a great deal of negotiating and lobbying took place with senior government staff” in the period leading up to the government’s decision to contract WE to administer the CSSG.
“It would be hard to believe that this much work did not meet the threshold of at least one staffer putting at least 20 per cent of their time into the work. And yet no report for any of these interactions was created for any of these interaction as required under the (Lobbying) Act,” he wrote in the letter.
“Besides the recent contract for the CSSG, the WE organization has received millions of dollars for different projects over the past five years. However, there is little to no record of any contact with the government ministers or officials in regard to these awards.”
Angus requested “a full investigation as to whether WE Charity and/or its affiliates were involved in improper lobbying as laid out by the provisions in the (Lobbying) Act.”
Back on July 17, the Conservative party released an open letter to Belanger, asking her to investigate “whether anyone in the WE organization ought to have registered to lobby public office holders, but failed to do so.”
WE Charity’s profile with the online lobbyist registry shows the organization retroactively submitted 65 communication reports for contacts with public office holders, some of which date back to January 2019. More than half of those reports are for communications since March 2020.
WE’s lobbying profile now lists 18 different staff members, including Al-Waheidi. The list does not include either of the Kielburger brothers, who founded the organization. Craig and Mark Kielburger also defended their decisions not to register as lobbyists and insisted their organization has not met the legal definition of lobbying.
Asked for comment about why it moved to register as a lobbyist this week and about the Conservative and NDP parties’ requests for a probe, WE Charity’s public relations responded with a brief statement.
“The disclosures speak for themselves and WE Charity’s transparency exceeds anything required,” the statement said.
WE Charity also directed Global News to two pages on its website outlining why WE had not formally registered to lobby the federal government and a timeline of what it calls a “proactive disclosure” of oral communications between the Kielburgers and both elected and non-elected federal officials since January 2019.
“WE Charity relies heavily on unpaid volunteers, including the volunteer founders, Craig and Marc Kielburger,” the second webpage reads. “Volunteerism on behalf of a charity is not considered lobbying under Canadian law. Only paid employees can be in-house lobbyists. This means there is no place on Canada’s lobbyists’ registry for the founders’ communications with federal officials.”
In an emailed statement on Friday, the lobbying commissioner’s office wouldn’t confirm whether it has started a probe into WE’s communications with government officials, but did confirm it started a preliminary assessment of the requests.
A spokesperson said the office is “unable to confirm or deny whether an investigation has been initiated or is ongoing” because of the “possibility that these matters may become police investigations.” (The Conservatives in July also called on the RCMP to investigate the WE deal.)
“To ensure transparency, all reportable communications should be listed in the Registry of Lobbyists,” the office said its statement. “WE Charity’s monthly communication reports do not mean that any preliminary assessment or a potential investigation cannot proceed.”
On its website, the lobbying commissioner’s office says a preliminary assessment involves determining whether the matter at issue “falls within the commissioner’s mandate and jurisdiction” and if a probe is “necessary to ensure compliance.”
The Liberal government’s agreement with WE — which Trudeau billed as the only organization capable of delivering on the scale required — for the student grant program fell apart in early July amid mounting scrutiny over the organization’s ties to Trudeau and his family.
It later was revealed that members of Trudeau’s immediate family had been paid sizeable speaking fees at WE events and that Morneau’s family, too, had ties to the organization.
Trudeau and Morneau are both being investigated by the federal ethics watchdog for possibility violating conflict-of-interest rules by not recusing themselves from cabinet discussions about the WE deal. Four parliamentary committees are now probing some aspect of the affair.
-With files from Global News’ Amanda Connolly and The Canadian Press