OTTAWA — Finance Minister Bill Morneau told the House of Commons finance committee that before his appearance Wednesday, he wrote a $41,000 cheque to repay the WE organization in three-year-old travel expenses.
Morneau said he discovered the unpaid expenses in a recent review of two trips he and his family took in 2017 to visit WE Charity’s school projects in Kenya and Ecuador. Records showed about $52,000 in personal expenses for the trips, he said, but they were unable to find receipts for expenses related to the time they spent with the WE organization.
“All I can tell is I was completely surprised that there were expenses that had not been charged to us on review,” he told finance committee members by video link. “It was always my intention, our family’s intention, to pay for all expenses.”
The finance minister currently faces an ethics investigation for his role in the federal government’s now-cancelled deal with WE Charity to administer a $912-million student grant program.
Morneau’s two daughters have ties with the Toronto-based international charity. He said his daughter Clare has been an unpaid speaker at WE events, and his other daughter Grace is currently working on contract with the organization until the end of August.
“It was my mistake not to have ensured that (the expenses) were paid,” he said, adding that he was unaware the WE-related expenses were not charged to him or his family.
The first trip, Morneau said, was for his wife and daughter to visit the WE organization’s school projects in Kenya. He said he joined his family on the second trip to Ecuador where they helped to build schools with WE.
Morneau said he asked his assistant to reach out to WE on Tuesday, a day before his scheduled appearance before the committee, to find out how much of the expenses for those trips the organization had covered.
“Today, I wrote a cheque in payment of $41,366,” he told MPs. He called his actions “even unknowingly” as “not appropriate” and apologized for the “error.”
On top of the previously unpaid travel expenses, Morneau disclosed that his wife has donated $50,000 to the WE organization on two separate occasions in April 2018 and more recently in June 2020.
He said, in hindsight he should have recused himself in cabinet discussions related to the decision to tap WE Charity to administer a nearly $1-billion deal to administer a student volunteer program.
Despite the $100,000 donation and unpaid travel expenses incurred on WE-related trips, Morneau said that the idea of conflict of interest didn’t cross his mind at the time.
WE stood to earn $43.5 million if it had successfully run the program.
In a statement released Wednesday evening, WE Charity said Morneau reached out to check if the family’s Ecuador trip had been paid for by the organization.
“We confirmed that it was,” the statement read. “They then reimbursed WE Charity for what they would have been charged if they had paid at the time: [CAD $5,893.30] per person.”
Morneau’s statement that he was ignorant about the expense accounting was a tough sell to some committee members.
WE paid for your travel. That has the perception of attempting to buy political influence.NDP MP Charlie Angus
NDP MP Charlie Angus raised concerns about WE hiring Morneau’s daughter and one of the organization’s co-founders having direct conversations with the minister, despite not being a registered lobbyist.
“WE paid for your travel. That has the perception of attempting to buy political influence,” the Timmins–James Bay MP said. “You’re not thinking there’s a problem here, but they’re paying for influence. I think that that’s really, really concerning that you didn’t seem to think that that was a problem.”
When asked to respond to revelations from a Global News story that the federal government signed the $912-million contribution agreement with a holding company affiliated with WE, Morneau pointed to bureaucrats.
He said that the public service had done their “appropriate due diligence” in recommending WE Charity to administer the federal student grant and volunteer program.
Tory MP asks Morneau to resign
Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre said the latest ethics investigation, Morneau’s second, shows how the minister has lost the “moral authority” to hold his office.
“We know that this is illegal. We know that you ought to have recused yourself,” Poilievre said of Morneau’s admission of unpaid WE-related travel expenses. The Conservative MP asked the finance minister to resign.
Morneau did not resign. Instead, he repeated his regret about making mistakes in failing to recognize that he and his family had incurred WE-paid travel expenses.
He repeatedly said he did not notice that there were travel expenses related to the WE trip that were not billed to him or his family. The finance minister pledged to “continue to work on behalf of Canadians.”
WE Charity co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger are scheduled to appear before the finance committee as witnesses on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also accepted an invitation to to appear before the committee, though a date and time has yet to be confirmed.