WE Charity Founders Grilled by Trudeau’s Own Party Members
(Bloomberg) -- The two founding brothers of WE Charity were grilled Monday by Canadian lawmakers, including members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party, as what began as a political scandal broadens into a wider controversy about the organization and its dealings with donors.
In almost three hours of often combative testimony, Craig and Marc Kielburger appeared alongside their lawyer to take questions from the parliamentary ethics committee. In defiant opening remarks, Marc blamed politicians for destroying the charity. “Today, we are taking a stand,” he said. “We have been disappointed in the conduct of all political parties.”
But Franceso Sorbara, a Liberal lawmaker from Ontario, told the brothers: “You want to throw blame on everyone else and not take responsibility for things that have happened within your control.”
The WE organization, founded 25 years ago by the Kielburgers, landed at the heart of controversy last summer after Trudeau failed to recuse himself from a government decision to give the charity a no-bid contract to distribute pandemic aid. (The prime minister’s wife, mother and brother had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past to appear at WE events.)
A Bloomberg Businessweek investigation in December included reports by former staff that donor plaques at WE projects in Kenya were swapped so often that the running joke was they should’ve been made of Velcro. WE denied the allegations at the time, calling them “baseless” and saying plaques are cemented into buildings. But it has since acknowledged removing at least two donors’ plaques. Further investigations by Bloomberg as well as national broadcaster CBC uncovered multiple cases where donors mistakenly believed they were the sole financiers of schools and water wells in the country.
“What’s a member of the public like me to make of this?,” asked another lawmaker from Trudeau’s party, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, expressing confusion at WE’s evolving explanations. “Why would a plaque ever be taken down?”
Craig didn’t answer the question but said the organization is conducting a review to see if there were additional cases. Asked who was responsible for moving plaques, he sought to deflect accountability to staff overseas. “It would’ve been a member of the Kenya team.” He also indicated that confusion may have arisen because funding comes from multiple sources to build and later operate a school.
In December, WE told Bloomberg that such schools, once built, are handed off to the Kenyan Ministry of Education to manage and staffed by government teachers. Asked Monday to clarify who funds ongoing operations, the brothers said the government doesn’t pay for all costs and that WE continues to contribute to operating expenses such as teacher training and school supplies.
“We are transparent with our donors. We’re not perfect. We make errors,” Craig said. “We try to own those errors to the best of our ability.”
The apology drew incredulity from Charlie Angus, a New Democratic Party lawmaker who has led the effort to broaden the committee’s conflict-of-interest probe to WE’s Kenya operations and dealings with donors.
Angus noted that one donor, Reed Cowan, had testified that a high-profile WE supporter -- whose extended family has funded reports defending the organization -- had sought to silence him from going public about a plaque dedicated to his deceased 4-year-old son being swapped without his knowledge.
“The fact that you took that plaque down twice shows this wasn’t an accident -- this was willful,” said Angus, who has amplified Cowan’s calls for U.S. and Canadian police and tax authorities to investigate the WE organization.
At times during the tense hearing, other members of Trudeau’s party sought to soften the exchanges. But opposition lawmakers, increasingly frustrated as the brothers repeatedly turned questions back on them, allowed little reprieve.
“Your smirking and your evading might be fun now -- it’s not going to be fun when we’re investigating you for contempt of parliament,” said Pierre Poilievre of the Conservative Party.
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