Ethics committee calls for sweeping reforms in wake of WE Charity scandal

A House of Commons committee is proposing a sweeping series of reforms to the way the federal government makes decisions on contracts after releasing a report on the WE Charity scandal.

Among the nearly two dozen recommendations in its 116-page report, tabled today, the standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics is calling on the government to not award any contracts to the WE group until an independent audit or a CRA forensic audit can determine how money flows between its charitable operations and their “multitude of side companies and real estate holdings.”

The committee also recommends that the government no longer award contracts to shell companies that lack assets in order to avoid liability.

During the WE scandal it was revealed that the federal government’s $912 million contract with the WE organization to run a student volunteer program was actually with WE Charity Foundation — a shell company set up by WE Charity.

The foundation was set up to hold real estate assets, but those assets had not been transferred to the foundation when the deal with the government was signed.

The committee said it also wants to see changes in rules put in place to prevent conflicts of interests on the part of cabinet ministers. For example, it wants to toughen up the conflict-of-interest screening for ministers before cabinet decisions are made. It also says that public office holders should be accompanied by staff to take notes when they meet lobbyists.

The report is the result of a process that began in the summer of 2020 when the committee began to look into what safeguards were in place to prevent conflicts of interest in federal government expenditure policies. In November 2020, the committee shifted the study’s focus to conflicts of interest and lobbying in relation to pandemic spending.

As he tabled the report in Parliament Thursday, Conservative MP Chris Warkentin, the committee chair, said government staffers’ refusal to testify and the difficulty the committee experienced in getting documents caused it to conclude that many questions remain unanswered.

MP Michael Barrett, Conservative ethics critic and a member of the committee, blasted the government for filibustering 20 meetings of the committee and proroguing Parliament.

“Canadians deserve … a government that’s committed to good ethical governance,” Barrett told the House. “One that does not lay out the red carpet for their friends and help them to skip the queue and get the inside track in Ottawa.”

The report comes a month after Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion concluded that former finance minister Bill Morneau had violated ethics rules in his dealings with WE Charity, but that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had not.

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