Conservative ethics critic James Bezan is asking the federal ethics commissioner to probe what he calls a $17,000 “sweetheart” deal given out by International Trade Minister Mary Ng’s office one month into the first COVID-19 lockdown in April 2020.
In the letter sent to Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion on Tuesday, Bezan asked for an investigation into whether Ng broke federal ethics rules when her office gave the deal for “media training” to the Toronto-area PR firm Pomp & Circumstance, whose founder previously worked for the Liberals.
“At a time when many Canadians were without a source of income, and many small businesses were peering into the abyss, one well-connected Liberal was thrown a nearly $17,000 contract by her close pal inside Justin Trudeau’s Cabinet,” Bezan wrote in the letter.
“It is well known that Ms. Ng and Ms. Alvaro are part of a longstanding group of close-knit friends, dating back to Toronto Liberal circles during the days of former premier Dalton McGuinty’s provincial government.”
The contract was disclosed in a recent government response to an order paper question requesting a breakdown of public relations or media training contracts.
Bezan argued in the letter that Ng and Alvaro are “close friends,” citing social media posts of them together at events as well as one 2018 tweet from Alvaro calling Ng her “dear friend” when the latter was named to the federal cabinet.
Bezan cited another provision that bars those in office from participating in decisions that could lead to a conflict of interest, and require the office-holder to recuse themselves from such decisions.
A spokesperson for Ng said all rules were followed.
“Minister Ng has always actively followed and fulfilled ethics guidelines and is in full respect of her disclosure obligations to the ethics commissioner,” said Alice Hansen, press secretary for the minister.
She said federal rules state that contracts under the amount of $25,000 “do not require soliciting bids.”
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“Different contractors provided media training that were critical in supporting the Minister and members of her communications team to inform Canadian small businesses, workers, and families about the supports available to them at the height of the pandemic.”
Hansen did not clearly say when asked whether being in full respect of her obligations meant that Ng had recused herself from discussions about the contract.
Federal contracts are a frequent subject of scrutiny from all sides of the political spectrum when it comes to alleged conflicts of interests.
The Liberals have faced several such accusations during their time in office, including a controversial $456-million contract — later cancelled — with WE Charity to run a student grant program that put the government under intense public scrutiny two years ago.
Close family ties were found between members of the Trudeau family and that of former finance minister Bill Morneau and the organization, leading to heated parliamentary committee meetings where MPs pressed for details on how the organization was selected to administer the program.
An ethics probe by Dion later found Trudeau did not break ethics rules, but Morneau did.
According to a listing of proactive disclosures from former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, his office also gave contracts to people who appear to have previously worked with or supported Conservative campaigns.
In April 2021, O’Toole’s office reported giving a $7,000-contract for management consulting to Katerina Homolova, whose LinkedIn lists her previously working as community outreach and ethnic media adviser for the leadership campaign of O’Toole’s predecessor, Andrew Scheer.
That same month, the office also reported a $15,000-contract being given to Toronto-based Pathos Strategy. The firm’s website lists its founder as Dan Robertson, “the chief strategist for the Conservative Party of Canada 2021 election campaign” and “Director of Advertising for the Conservative Party of Canada’s historic victory in the 2011 general election.”
Contracts for the same amounts were also listed again in May 2021 disclosures.