Canada Lawmaker Seeks Probe of WE Charity’s Kenya Operations
(Bloomberg) -- A Canadian opposition lawmaker is pressing to broaden conflict-of-interest investigations linked to WE Charity to include the organization’s operations in Kenya.
Charlie Angus, a member of the House of Commons ethics committee, has issued a letter to colleagues on the panel asking them to examine allegations that pupils at some WE-operated schools in Kenya were sometimes subjected to corporal punishment by teachers. In the letter, Angus said he has instructed the clerk of the committee to request that Guy Spencer Elms, WE’s lawyer in Kenya, be invited to testify.
Last year, the WE organization and its founders, brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger, were swept up in a conflict-of-interest scandal involving Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that resulted in increased public scrutiny of the charity.
According to the Jan. 11 letter, which was seen by Bloomberg News, Angus says Elms “is listed as director and secretary to many of the Kielburgers’ companies in Kenya, including WE Education for Children Ltd.” Reached by Bloomberg, committee clerk Miriam Burke would not comment on whether she received the request from Angus.
Angus is the sole member of the opposition New Democratic Party on the 11-member ethics committee. The governing Liberals have five members, the Conservatives four and the Bloc Quebecois one member. There’s no guarantee the committee will pursue Angus’s request to broaden its inquiry.
Asked about the request, Michael Barrett, a Conservative member of the panel, said: “From the beginning, Conservatives have been trying to get answers for Canadians on the WE charity scandal, and Canadians can count on us to carefully continue the critical work of the Ethics Committee when Parliament resumes.”
In December, Bloomberg Businessweek reported allegations of corporal punishment from three former students and a former teacher at charitable schools operated by WE in Kenya. Students described being caned multiple times from 2012 to 2016, on the back, legs, buttocks and hands.
WE disputed the allegations and criticisms of its Kenya operations, as well as other concerns and allegations raised in the article about oversight, corporate structure and the organization’s real estate portfolio.
In responding Tuesday to news of Angus’s letter, WE said: “Any suggestion that some students at WE-operated schools were caned has been disputed in formal statements by four former students, three former teachers and the former principal, all of whom would have been present during the time of the alleged caning incident, as well as senior representatives from the Kenyan Narok County for Education who confirmed the same.”
In his letter to colleagues on the ethics committee, Angus wrote: “I am sure you will share my deep concern over allegations that students were beaten at WE Charity schools. These allegations require investigation.” He also said it would be necessary to invite other witnesses that worked in the WE organization, or students at its overseas schools, to provide testimony.
To that end, the letter asks the clerk provide written reassurance “that any witness appearing before us is protected by the full power of parliamentary privilege,” meaning they can speak frankly even if they have signed non-disclosure agreements. International witnesses should be told “we have the ability to offer the chance to provide their testimony in camera,” the letter says.
Last June, Trudeau’s government announced that WE would be the sole administrator of a C$544 million ($426 million) Covid-19 program offering grants to student volunteers. Controversy erupted after it emerged that WE had previously paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees and expenses to Trudeau’s mother, brother and wife for speaking engagements since 2012.
Former finance minister Bill Morneau, whose two daughters have had connections to WE, also acknowledged he accepted more than C$41,000 in travel expenses from WE for family trips to Kenya and Ecuador in 2017. Belatedly discovering that his family hadn’t paid for the trips, Morneau reimbursed WE for C$41,366 toward the end of July. He resigned abruptly the following month amid a broader rift with Trudeau.
Canada’s federal ethics watchdog, as well as at least two parliamentary committees, have been conducting probes into potential conflict-of-interest violations.
The contract was rescinded and Trudeau has acknowledged he should have recused himself from the decision. The issue has continued to dog the Canadian leader, though it has lost momentum in recent months amid a second wave of Covid-19 cases.
The House of Commons ethics committee held a number of meetings in November and December on conflict-of-interest and lobbying issues related to pandemic spending, in which WE Charity and its operations featured prominently. The House of Commons finance committee has also looked at the matter, including taking testimony from the Kielburgers last summer.
During parliamentary testimony, Craig Kielburger acknowledged building a “labyrinth” over 25 years, in part to comply with what he described as overly restrictive Canadian tax rules. He said the approach was also intended to ensure that each overseas jurisdiction had separately-incorporated entities complying with local laws.
The ethics committee has already requested that Craig and Marc Kielburger; Sofia Marquez, WE’s former director of government and stakeholder relations; and Chief Financial Officer Victor Li appear, according to Angus. “Their testimony will be crucial in finishing our report in a timely manner,” he says in his letter. “Therefore, if they continue to delay or deny our request, I will be looking to use the committee’s authority to compel them to appear.”
Trudeau’s argument has been that it was public servants, not his government, who recommended WE for the contract, on the premise it was the only organization in Canada capable of building out the plan quickly. That assertion prompted opposition lawmakers to look more closely at WE, raising questions about its complex corporate structure, which included for-profit activities, as well as its political connections.
Founded in 1995 as Free the Children by then 12-year-old Craig Kielburger, the charity evolved into a juggernaut in non-profit circles. It became known for its massive celebrity-stoked youth rallies and school programs in Canada, the U.S. and Britain. It also created a for-profit travel arm offering volunteers the chance to help build schools or dig wells in impoverished parts of the world, with a portion of its profits feeding back into the charity.
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