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Trudeau Faces Ethics Questions on Family Ties to Charity Given Government Contract

2020-07-10 19:06:53

TORONTO — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mother and brother were paid more than $200,000 over four years by a charity recently awarded a no-bid contract to disburse hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to student volunteers, officials confirmed Thursday.

The revelation raised ethical questions anew for Mr. Trudeau, who has faced earlier conflict-of-interest complaints along with a high-profile ethics investigation that had once threatened to derail his tenure.

Last week, the country’s ethics commissioner opened an investigation into whether the prime minister had breached conflict-of-interest rules by awarding the aid contract to an organization, known as the WE Charity, with which he has close personal ties.

Facing an uproar, the government reconsidered and said it would run the aid program instead, known as the Canada Student Service Grant.

But questions were revived on Thursday when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the news site Canadaland reported that the charity had paid Mr. Trudeau’s mother and brother a total of $207,000, about 282,000 Canadian dollars, for speaking engagements. The charity confirmed the information to The New York Times.

“The prime minister personally intervened to direct a billion-dollar program to a group that had paid his family almost $300k. Not in Venezuela. Not in Zimbabwe. In Canada,” tweeted Pierre Poilievre, a member of Parliament from the opposition Conservatives, demanding an emergency session to address the issue.

The episode threatens to tarnish Mr. Trudeau, who has only recently started to rebuild his image. His party narrowly won re-election last year after he was accused in an ethics investigation of trying to improperly influence a high-profile corporate criminal case.

In a statement, Mr. Trudeau’s office said the “prime minister’s relatives engage with a variety of organizations and support many personal causes on their own accord.” It urged Canadians to focus on the aid program, not on its administration.

“The Canada Student Service Grant program is about giving young people opportunities to contribute to their communities, not about benefits to anyone else,” Alex Wellstead, the prime minister’s press secretary, said in an email.

Mr. Trudeau has spoken at WE Charity events. His wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, has hosted a podcast connected to the charity about mental health, called WE Well-Being.

The charity’s press office said in an email that the prime minister and his wife had volunteered their time and were not paid, with one exception in 2012, when Ms. Gregoire Trudeau received about $1,000 for a speaking engagement. Mr. Trudeau was not prime minister at the time.

The award of the student aid contract to WE Charity, an organization best known for hosting large youth events, had already stirred criticism, not only from opposition parties but also from some Canadians in the nonprofit sector.

In response, the government announced last week that it would instead administer the aid program, established to cushion some student costs during a weakened economy by awarding them with up to $5,000 in grants for doing volunteer work.

In addition, the charity’s founding brothers, Craig and Marc Kielburger, said the organization would waive all the administrative costs incurred in setting up the program and would return government funds already received to the government.

The charity had been slated to receive a total of $14 million for overseeing the program.

The latest revelations played to an image of a prime minister who already suffered from “the whiff of entitlement,” said Shachi Kurl, the executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, a Canadian nonprofit polling firm based in Vancouver.

“The question is whether this will further stick to the bottom of his shoe,” Ms. Kurl said.

In August of last year, Canada’s federal ethics commissioner found that Mr. Trudeau had violated an ethics law when he used his office “to circumvent, undermine and ultimately attempt to discredit” the former justice minister and attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould.

The commissioner said Mr. Trudeau had improperly pressured her to seek a civil penalty against SNC-Lavalin, a Montreal-based engineering company, rather than a criminal conviction. But while the scandal haunted him, Mr. Trudeau nevertheless went on to win a second term late last year, albeit with a minority government.

And in December 2017, Canada’s conflict-of-interest and ethics commissioner ruled that a vacation by the Trudeau family on a private Caribbean island owned by a billionaire philanthropist — and two other trips made by him or members of his family — broke four sections of Canada’s conflict-of-interest law.

Those episodes took the sheen off Mr. Trudeau, who first came to power in 2015, fashioning himself as a liberal change-maker with a strong moral compass.

Since last year’s hard-fought re-election campaign, Mr. Trudeau has worked hard to rebuild his brand and, in recent months, it has been burnished by his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. He managed the crisis for some time from his home study, with three children underfoot and his wife suffering from the virus in bed.

Catherine Porter reported from Toronto, and Dan Bilesky from Montreal.


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