Ethics commissioner expands probe into Morneau over WE-sponsored travel expenses

The Opposition Conservatives called on the federal ethics watchdog today to widen his investigation of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau regarding his family’s ties to WE Charity, as his finance minister faces an expanded examination of his own.

Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion is already investigating Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau for possible violations of the Conflict of Interest Act for not recusing themselves during cabinet discussions about the WE deal.

Both have apologized for not doing so.

Morneau’s problems grew bigger Wednesday over his repayment of $41,000 in WE-sponsored travel expenses for family trips three years ago. Dion told the NDP he would look into the spending.

Regulations prohibit ministers or their family members from accepting free travel, lest it be seen as buying influence over government policy.

In a letter to NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus, the commissioner wrote he will look into whether Morneau ran afoul of that rule and a separate one for “failing to disclose these gifts,” which could lead to a fine, albeit not a large one.

For Trudeau, the issues stem from speaking fees and related expenses the WE organization paid to his mother, brother and wife amounting to over $500,000, based on testimony the charity’s co-founders provided to the House of Commons finance committee Tuesday.

During an afternoon press conference Wednesday, Conservatives said the new numbers related to the travel expenses require an additional investigation by Dion to see if the payments violate conflict-of-interest rules.

‘The truth, the whole truth’

It all landed on the eve of Trudeau’s appearance before the Commons finance committee, where he will answer questions about the events that led his cabinet to ask WE Charity to oversee a program to provide grants to students and graduates for volunteer work if they can’t find paid work this summer due to the pandemic-related economic slowdown.

The partisan barbs and rhetoric on display Wednesday set the stage for a potentially contentious and rare prime ministerial appearance Thursday at a House of Commons committee.

“We want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre said in Ottawa.

He warned the Opposition would look to pry more testimony out of Trudeau this fall if he doesn’t provide detailed answers.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre spoke with reporters on Parliament Hill a day before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is scheduled to appear before the Commons finance committee. 1:14

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he wanted Trudeau to explain why the Liberals opted to have the charity run a service program when there were other, potentially easier avenues to help financially strapped students.

He cited increasing student grants or putting more money into the Canada Summer Jobs program as examples.

“This was never about helping students,” Singh said Wednesday in Burnaby, B.C.

“This was about helping close friends of the Liberal government and of Prime Minister Trudeau, and that is deeply troubling.”

The Liberals budgeted $912 million for the student-volunteer program, but only agreed to pay a maximum of $543 million to WE. That included about $43.5 million in administration fees to the group, with the remainder to be spent on the grants.

The program is to pay eligible students and graduates $1,000 for every 100 hours of volunteering, up to a maximum of $5,000. The government has yet to roll it out, nearly a month after WE backed out in response to the controversy.

On Tuesday, WE co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger told the finance committee they expected the program to cost up to $300 million because most grant recipients would earn between $1,000 and $3,000, with few hitting the maximum amount.

They also spoke about the expenses paid to Trudeau’s family members, and the $41,000 in travel expenses for Morneau and his family, which the finance minister said he paid back last week.

‘Fishing expeditions’

Their message to the committee was that it was their history as an organization that earned them the deal, not any political ties. Similarly, the Liberals say they acted on the advice of the non-partisan public service.

The ethics committee is meeting separately to look into conflict-of-interest safeguards on government spending decisions.

While its members have asked Trudeau to testify there, a Conservative proposal to have cabinet ministers declare whether any of their relatives have ties to WE failed to land the necessary votes today.

Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett argued opposing the motion amounted to “complicity in a cover-up,” prompting Liberal MP Greg Fergus to argue the committee shouldn’t be used for a political witch hunt where MPs investigate each other.

Angus, the New Democrat on the committee, cautioned against forging ahead with any probe against MPs or ministers without a specific reason: “Fishing expeditions, I believe, are beyond the purview of the committee.”