Erin O’Toole’s office gave nearly $240,000 worth of taxpayer-funded contracts to Conservative insiders in his first six months on the job, Global News has learned, even while O’Toole and many of his MPs were hammering the Trudeau Liberals for sending taxpayer-funded contracts to Liberal-connected firms.
Moreover, O’Toole has allowed his deputy chief of staff, Steve Outhouse, to continue to operate his own communications business which, among other things, has accepted contracts — paid for with funds donated by party members — to help nine individuals compete in Conservative nomination contests all while continuing his taxpayer-funded employment in the opposition leader’s office (OLO).
Global News examined the contract history of the OLO for the first six months of O’Toole’s time in office and researched the background of some of the individuals and entities which received those contracts.
The taxpayer-funded contracts, to Outhouse and the others, are a cause for concern among some Conservative MPs and Conservative campaigners who, speaking on the condition of anonymity, believe that the contracts may undermine Conservative charges that the Trudeau Liberals are behaving unethically with federal funds. Some also voiced concerns about the fairness of a top aide to the leader working in nomination fights.
“Someone should remind O’Toole and his team that we are supposed to be the party of accountability,” said one Harper-era Conservative now out of politics who was disappointed to learn of the Outhouse arrangement.
As the spring sitting of Parliament was closing, the Conservatives spent much time criticizing the Trudeau Liberals for giving a $75,000 contract to a company owned by Tom Pitfield, a close friend of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“Mr. Pitfield is not just the Prime Minister’s buddy; he is also married to the former Liberal Party president,” O’Toole said in the House of Commons on June 22. “It certainly pays to be a Liberal insider in Ottawa these days.”
But, according to records published at the House of Commons website, it also appears to pay to be a Conservative insider.
For the last six months of Parliament’s fiscal year, ending March 30, which roughly corresponds to O’Toole’s first six months as leader, several contracts were awarded to Conservative insiders or entities with close ties to O’Toole’s leadership campaign including:
- $83,000 to Jim Ross who was in charge of the O’Toole leadership campaign’s field operations. Ross is a senior consultant with a firm called ElectRight which provides voter contact services to candidates and campaigns.
- $72,000 to ex-MP Alupa Clarke. Clarke was a Conservative MP from the Quebec City region who won in 2015 but was defeated in 2019. He subsequently became O’Toole’s leadership campaign chair in Quebec.
- $30,000 to strategic communications consultancy Pathos Strategy whose principals are Dan Robertson and Dimitri Soudas. Robertson play a key advisory role in O’Toole’s leadership campaign and was subsquently hired by the OLO to provide communications advice. Soudas is best known as Stephen Harper’s longtime communications aide and Quebec advisor.
- $20,000 to Katarina Homolova, a public relations advisor who worked in the OLO when Andrew Scheer was leader.
- $14,000 to M5 Consulting Group. One of its senior consultants is Supa Meikle who, according to his LinkedIn profile, joined the firm in January a month before he joined O’Toole’s OLO as a senior advisor.
- $18,000 to Intercede Communication, the firm founded by Outhouse in 2016 to provide communications.
Among other things, Outhouse was chief of staff to Harper-era fisheries minister Gail Shea and then went on to be the campaign manager for Leslyn Lewis’ run for leadership of the Conservative Party. O’Toole would win that race but Lewis, who finished third, was a surprisingly strong contender and Outhouse was widely acknowledged within the party for his tactical skill in supporting Lewis’ strong finish.
Chelsea Tucker, O’Toole’s director of communications, said Outhouse’s firm was hired in the fall of 2020 to assist with the transition from Andrew Scheer’s leadership to O’Toole’s leadership. The decision was subsequently made to offer Outhouse employment as O’Toole’s deputy chief of staff.
But some in the party saw Outhouse’s appointment as a nod to the social conservative wing of the party, the wing which Outhouse, a social conservative himself, strongly cultivated during Lewis’ campaign.
Neither Tucker nor Outhouse would divulge Outhouse’s salary, but those who have worked in opposition leaders’ offices say Outhouse is likely earning between $140,000 and $160,000 a year, paid for out of the House of Common budget.
But Outhouse’s firm, Intercede, could be earning $50,000 to $75,000 a year — or more — for providing services to help nomination contestants win the right to be a Conservative standard-bearer in the next general election.
“The House of Commons administration was consulted and in accordance with the rules and the guidance given, Mr. Outhouse’s business continued to work on nominations,” Tucker said in an e-mail. “Mr. O’Toole is a firm believer in fair nominations. All staff are welcome to participate in the democratic process if they so choose as long as it doesn’t interfere with their work obligations and they don’t use any parliamentary resources.”
The Conservative Party of Canada runs the party’s nomination contests — vetting candidates, setting election dates, and so on — and is administratively separate from the OLO, where Tucker works. Questions put to the party about the appropriateness of a deputy chief of staff getting involved, for a fee, in party nomination contests were not answered.
Outhouse would not disclose the identify of his clients but, in a brief email, confirmed that Intercede was hired to provide website development, email and calling services for nine different nomination contestants. Global News has contacted other providers of similar services who say that a nomination contestant, regardless of the party, could expect to pay a consultancy like Intercede anywhere between $5,000 and $15,000 for those kinds of services depending on the complexity of the nomination contest. Those fees would not be paid by taxpayers but would be paid by the donors to each nomination campaign.
Canada’s elections laws put a cap on spending by nomination contestants of $25,000 per contestant per race.
Multiple sources say one of Intercede’s clients is Toyin Crandell, who is among four individuals seeking the Conservative nomination in the Ontario riding of Simcoe North. Simcoe North is held by the retiring Bruce Stanton and is widely seen as one of the safest Conservative seats in Ontario.
Global News has not yet been able to reach Crandell. Crandell, the daughter of a Christian pastor, is also believed to be supported by the social conservative wing of the party. Indeed, Lewis herself has endorsed Crandell’s candidacy as has Edmonton-area MP Garnett Genuis, an MP with strong social conservative credentials.
During the leadership race as well as in the just concluded Parliamentary session, it was clear that those who call themselves social conservatives had different values and priorities than some others in the party, particularly on issues such as right-to-die legislation and the conversion therapy ban. That occasionally produced some tension within the Conservative parliamentary caucus.
That O’Toole’s deputy chief of staff was working at what one Conservative described as “a side hustle” to bring more social conservatives into the caucus has raised eyebrows among some MPs and others in the party who spoke to Global News on condition of anonymity.
Outhouse said that of the nine clients his firm provided services to for nomination contests, three were winners, three were losers, and the other three have yet to finish. And, he said, not all would characterize themselves as social conservaties. Indeed, one of those — not a social conservative — is Melissa Lantsman, who is the nominated Conservative candidate in the Toronto-area riding of Thornhill. Lantsman confirmed that she used Intercede to win her nomination contest.
The Simcoe North Conservative nomination is also being contested by Adam Chambers, a former aide to former Conservative finance minister Jim Flaherty, who, coincidentally, is described as “a close personal friend” of O’Toole’s.
The Simcoe North race nomination contest will wrap up this weekend.