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Trudeau expected perception issues with WE deal, but no conflict of interest

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The WE controversy that has been dogging the Liberals is expected to continue to follow Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government after Trudeau's appearance before a House of Commons committee Thursday. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears as a witness via videoconference during a House of Commons finance committee in the Wellington Building on Thursday, July 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The WE controversy that has been dogging the Liberals is expected to continue to follow Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government after Trudeau's appearance before a House of Commons committee Thursday. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears as a witness via videoconference during a House of Commons finance committee in the Wellington Building on Thursday, July 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he knew there would be problems with perception over having WE Charity run a $900-million student-volunteer program, but he believed there was no conflict of interest because his family would not benefit.

The prime minister also said he did not seek guidance from the federal ethics commissioner after public servants recommended the WE organization administer the Canada Student Service Grant.

This, despite the fact Trudeau said he did know the public and opposition politicians would scrutinize the deal because of his own and his family's ties to WE, which is why he told the public servants recommending the organization to go back and make absolutely sure they were on solid ground.

"I knew there would be perception issues around this," Trudeau said Friday in Ottawa, speaking to reporters less than 24 hours after making a rare prime ministerial appearance at a House of Commons committee over his role in the controversy.

"At the same time, delivering a grant program to students who volunteer across the country has absolutely nothing to do with any work my brother or mother did with WE and that's why there was no conflict of interest."

Trudeau said he should have recused himself from the discussions, but instead chose to ask for this due diligence to be done — something he says he now regrets.

The prime minister testified Thursday that he didn't learn WE had been chosen by the public service to run the program until May 8, which was just hours before the arrangement was to be taken to cabinet for approval.

That's when, Trudeau said, he put the brakes on the deal.

"We pulled the item from the agenda so that we could be doing the right thing, the way," Trudeau told the Commons finance committee.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said he doesn't buy Trudeau's account.

"Multiple ministers and senior officials have testified at the finance committee. Not one of them said that the prime minister pulled the WE proposal from the May 8 cabinet meeting and sent it back for further scrutiny," Scheer said in a statement Friday.

The public service later came back on May 21 to reaffirm its recommendation that WE was the only organization that could run the student-volunteer program, Trudeau said. WE ended up backing out of the deal in early July over the political controversy.

Trudeau's chief of staff Katie Telford testified that the civil servants presented it as a "binary choice" — either they moved ahead with WE Charity to deliver the program or they wouldn't go ahead with it at all.

In his testimony, Trudeau acknowledged his family's involvement with WE: his mother, brother and wife have participated in and spoken at WE events, and have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and expenses, although he testified the amounts were not previously known to him.

He stressed that he did not have any conversations with WE co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger during this time and that WE Charity did not receive any preferential treatment by him or anyone else in the government.

He also said he didn't talk to his staff about WE Charity or its proposed involvement in the volunteering program until May 8, although he has since learned policy staff in his office had been working with the Privy Council Office and other departments, and they knew that WE Charity was under consideration to run the effort.

The prime minister and Telford also both noted that Sophie Gregoire Trudeau's work with WE, including a podcast on mental wellness, has been unpaid except for expenses covered by the organization, all of which had been cleared by the ethics commissioner.

The Conservatives and NDP have called on federal ethics watchdog Mario Dion to widen his probe of Trudeau to include these expenses.

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. Dion is also looking into WE-sponsored trips Morneau and his family took in 2017. Morneau repaid $41,000 in related expenses last week.

Opposition MPs on the Commons finance committee are now pushing to hear from more junior staffers in the prime minister's office, and demanding access to cabinet documents.

"If the prime minister has nothing to hide, he needs to waive cabinet confidentiality so that committee and the ethics commissioner can do their job and get to the bottom of this issue without interference and excuses from the PMO," NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said in a statement Friday.

They want more detailed answers about why WE Charity began working on and incurring expenses for the program on May 5, when it had not yet been approved by cabinet.

Telford told the committee that another Trudeau aide, Rick Theis, talked to WE that same day, though she said he referred WE to the public service to talk about anything substantial.

The Kielburger brothers have said those departmental officials told WE it could incur expenses before being awarded the agreement.

The brothers said they wanted to get the program going quickly, and started work knowing they could lose money if cabinet said no.

Asked about this Friday, Trudeau said it was the Kielburgers alone who decided to go ahead and start working and incurring expenses on the grant program.

"That was a decision that they took because they knew how important it was to get this program going and they assumed certain risks in going forward and starting to spend on a program that hadn't yet been approved by cabinet and would not be approved for another few weeks," Trudeau said.

Scheer said he is also skeptical of this explanation.

"Why was WE so sure that they were going to be approved? Why were they told they could start charging expenses before the program was even approved?" Scheer said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 31, 2020.

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