The House Ethics committee failed to come to an agreement Monday on whether to investigate the Liberals’ use of parliamentary funds to hire two companies integral to the party’s digital campaign efforts.
The marathon five-hour meeting was quickly scheduled after four MPs — three Conservatives and the lone Bloc Québécois member — wrote to committee chair Chris Warkentin, also a Conservative, expressing their concern about the Liberals’ using parliamentary funds to pay two companies involved with Liberal election efforts, first reported by The Globe and Mail.
The committee adjourned just after 4 p.m., well past the 1 p.m. cutoff outlined in the notice of meeting.
At question is whether the use of parliamentary funds was for partisan election purposes, and if there’s a conflict of interest given one of the companies is run by a longtime friend of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who has also worked on Liberal election campaigns. The Liberals denied any wrongdoing, saying the parliamentary money was used to pay for constituency services only.
Data Sciences and NGP VAN were the two companies named in The Globe report. The two companies provide election-related services for the Liberals, but the party has said there’s a firewall between the election work and the constituency work.
Tom Pitfield, CEO of Data Sciences, a close friend of Trudeau, ran the digital operations for the Liberal party’s 2015 and 2019 election campaigns.
Conservative Ethics critic Michael Barrett began the meeting by proposing a motion to have Pitfield appear before the committee to answer questions on what exactly Data Sciences does for the Liberals. A spokesperson for the Liberal Research Bureau told The Globe that Data Sciences provides technical support to MPs.
Liberal MPs said they were wary of Barrett’s request turning into a fishing expedition. NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice then proposed to have Pitfield appear at a single two-hour meeting to try to allay concerns the inquiry would drag on indefinitely.
Liberal MP Brenda Shanahan then moved a sub-amendment to refer the matter to the Board of Internal Economy (BOIE). She argued it has a more clear-cut jurisdictional claim over the issue and would be better suited than the Ethics committee to handle an investigation. One committee can’t order another committee to study an issue, so had it passed it would’ve been up to the MPs on BOIE to take up the matter.
Conservative MPs balked at the proposal, saying it was an attempt to have the issue handled by a committee not controlled by the opposition. The Ethics committee has five Liberals and five opposition MPs, not including chair Warkentin. The BOIE has four Liberals and and four opposition members, not including chair Anthony Rota.
Liberal MP Greg Fergus tried and failed to break the ensuing deadlock by having the committee study every party’s data services operations to see if they’re all complying with parliamentary rules.
MPs then debated, raised several points of order, and after a series of testy exchanges, suspended proceedings before adjourning the meeting.