Trudeau Is Cleared by Ethics Watchdog in WE Charity Scandal

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was cleared by Canada’s ethics watchdog for his role in awarding a no-bid government contract to a high-profile charity with ties to his family.

In a report released Thursday, Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion concluded that Trudeau didn’t give preferential treatment to WE Charity when it was selected last summer to be the sole administrator of a program to distribute C$544 million ($448 million) in pandemic aid to students. Trudeau’s finance minister at the time, however, was found to be in conflict.

The contract sparked a political uproar when it came to light that Trudeau’s wife, mother and brother had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past to appear at events for WE, which is led by two Canadian brothers, Craig and Marc Kielburger.

Trudeau Is Cleared by Ethics Watchdog in WE Charity Scandal

“I determined there was no friendship between Mr. Trudeau and the Kielburgers, nor was Mr​. Trudeau involved in any discussions with them leading to the decision,” Dion said. The watchdog, who began his examination last July, added that while the family connection “created the appearance of a conflict of interest,” it didn’t formally cross a line.

The report blunts a major attack on the prime minister’s character as he weighs the timing of an election, expected this year, in which he could win back his parliamentary majority. Trudeau has at times faced criticism for his judgment, and this was his third conflict-of-interest probe since taking power.

“This confirms what I have been saying from the beginning,” Trudeau said in a statement after the report’s release. The prime minister has nonetheless apologized for failing to recuse himself from the decision.

The WE organization was lauded over its 25-year history by Fortune 500 companies, politicians, and celebrities from Prince Harry to Oprah Winfrey, allowing the Kielburger brothers to cultivate ties with influential backers. Among those was former Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who played a more direct role in the awarding of the government’s pandemic aid program.

In a separate report, the ethics watchdog concluded that Morneau did violate Canada’s conflict-of-interest act.

“Mr. Morneau afforded WE preferential treatment by permitting members of his ministerial staff to disproportionately assist a constituent,” Dion said. “This unfettered access to the Office of the Minister of Finance was based, in my view, on the relationship between Mr. Morneau and Mr. Craig Kielburger,” who were friends, he said.

Morneau abruptly resigned last August, amid a broader rift with Trudeau, after belatedly discovering that his family hadn’t paid for trips to luxury voluntourism camps where the WE organization hosts donors. He reimbursed the charity, and was cleared earlier by the watchdog for that slip.

Over the months, what began as a conflict-of-interest scandal has widened to closer scrutiny of the WE organization itself and the Kielburger brothers. Questions arose about a complex corporate structure that mixed philanthropy with for-profit activities, how funds were allocated, and whether the organization was as transparent with donors as it should have been.

Charlie Angus -- an opposition New Democratic Party member of a parliamentary ethics committee that has been probing those issues separately -- expressed support for the decision to clear Trudeau but said the watchdog’s findings on Morneau underscore ongoing concerns.

“The Ethics Commissioner has shone a light on how the Kielburger organization was able to have such unfettered access, right into the highest corridors of power,” he said. “They were not registered to lobby but they used the friendships that they carefully cultivated within the Liberal government to get access that no other group could have dreamed of getting.”

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