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Trudeau government paying $84M to firm employing Katie Telford's husband to manage rent assistance aid program

National Post logo National Post 2020-08-08 Christopher Nardi
Katie Telford holding a sign: Katie Telford, Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, appears as a witness via videoconference before the House of Commons finance committee looking into the WE affair, July 30, 2020. © Katie Telford, Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, appears as a witness via videoconference before the House of Commons finance committee looking into the WE affair, July 30, 2020.

OTTAWA – The Trudeau government is paying up to $84 million to a company that employs Chief of Staff Katie Telford’s husband as a senior executive to administer its COVID-19 emergency commercial rent assistance program for small businesses.

Due to the ties between Telford and her husband, Robert Silver, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) assures that their chief of staff has recused herself from any decisions that may involve MCAP, Silver’s employer.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Silver became Senior Vice-President, Strategy, Policy, Risk at MCAP in January 2020. MCAP bills itself as one of Canada’s largest private mortgage companies, with over 300,000 customers and $105 billion in assets under management.

According to LinkedIn, this is Silver’s first job in the private sector since leaving Crestview — the government relations firm he helped create — following the October 2015 elections. At the time, he cited his wife’s job as new chief of staff to the prime minister as the reason for his departure.

As Trudeau’s top political staffer, Telford has virtually unlimited access to documents and discussions in the policy-making process.

a screenshot of a cell phone

But a January internal email to PMO staff provided to National Post shows that when Telford’s husband officially joined MCAP, Telford set up a voluntary conflict of interest screen between herself, her husband and his employer, MCAP. The goal was to “ensure that she is not exposed to any real or perceived conflict of interest,” reads the email sent by now-former PMO Director of Issues Management and Parliamentary Affairs, Maxime Dea.

“This screen applies to anything related to MCAP and it has been diligently followed since it was implemented. Ms. Telford has not been involved in any discussions related to MCAP,” PMO spokesperson Alex Wellstead added via email Friday.

Since Silver took on his new job at MCAP and the beginning of the pandemic, the federal government — often through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), a federal crown corporation — has created new programs or made changes to existing policies that directly impact MCAP.

Notably, the CMHC subcontracted delivery of the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance Program (CECRA) for small businesses to MCAP on May 15, the corporation’s spokesperson Audrey-Anne Coulombe confirmed to the Post . At the time, she said CMHC determined that it did not have the capacity to administer the program internally.

First announced by Trudeau in April, the CECRA provides unsecured, forgivable loans to eligible commercial property owners to help cover the rent of small businesses tenants.

a man wearing glasses and smiling at the camera:  Robert Silver, who is married to Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford. © Twitter Robert Silver, who is married to Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford.

The contract was initially worth a maximum of $56 million, but later jumped to $84 million when CECRA was extended through July. According to PMO, Telford was not involved in the decision to extend the program, specifically because of MCAP’s involvement.

“CMHC consulted with two financial institutions with experience in servicing commercial mortgages and requested proposals with estimated costs for the delivery of CECRA. MCAP presented a stronger proposal and the lowest cost of the two, which led to the execution of a contract agreement with CMHC,” Coulombe wrote.

Though Silver’s title indicates he has a policy role, it is unclear how much his position has to do with government policy or contracts. Coulombe confirmed that Silver had communicated once with CMHC since January, during a June 22 nd call with communications staffs from their office and MPAC.

Silver did not respond to questions sent to him via MCAP’s communications office. Both Minister of Finance Bill Morneau’s office and Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Ahmed Hussen’s office (who oversees CMHC) say they never received communications from Silver regarding CECRA since he joined MCAP.

If the conflict of interest screen set up by PMO between Telford, Silver and MCAP doesn’t appear on the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner’s (CIE) public registry, it’s because it was voluntarily put up by the prime minister’s staff after Commissioner Mario Dion’s office determined a formal screen was not necessary, an email provided by PMO shows.

When Telford’s husband officially joined MCAP in January, Trudeau’s office reached out to the commissioner’s office seeking guidance regarding any potential conflicts between Telford, Silver and his employer. After assessing information provided by PMO, Lyne Salloum, a compliance advisor with the ethics commissioner, wrote that no formal conflict of interest screen was needed at the time.

“Based on the information provided, it does not seem likely that (Telford) would have dealings with MCAP,” so the opportunity to further her husband’s private interest would be “very remote,” Salloum’s email reads.

A recent example of a screen set up by the CIE for a political staffer is Elizabeth Cheesbrough. The director of policy for Associate Finance Minister Mona Fortier put up a screen earlier this year between herself and public and government relations firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies because her friend works there as a vice-president.

For Rémy Trudel, former Quebec minister and current professor of governance at l’École Nationale d’Administration Publique, there is no doubt that Telford needed to set up a screen like she did, regardless of the CIE’s recommendation.

“It’s clear as day that there needs to be a screen here, because there is at the very least the perception of conflict of interest, which is just as damaging as an actual conflict of interest,” Nadeau said in an interview. “All conflicts of interests, potential conflicts of interest or even perceived conflicts of interest must be separated by a Great Wall of China that must be formal, written and made public.”

The contract between Silver’s firm at the government comes to light as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is embroiled in another conflict of interest controversy, this time regarding his and Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s ties to the WE organization.

In June, WE Charity was offered up to $43,5 million to administer a student volunteer grant program worth hundreds of millions of dollars before pulling out of the deal in early July.

Both Trudeau and Morneau are currently under investigation by the Ethics Commissioner for not having recused themselves from discussions surrounding the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG), despite their family’s close ties to WE.

Trudeau had personally attended or hosted multiple WE Day rallies until 2017, whereas his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, is a WE ambassador and hosts a podcast for the organization.

Margaret Trudeau and Alexandre Trudeau, respectively the prime minister’s mother and brother, have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in total speaking fees by WE since 2016.

In Morneau’s case, two of his daughters have ties to the WE organization, including one that currently works there under contract.

The finance minister also admitted in late July that he had reimbursed $41,000 in unpaid fees to WE for two humanitarian trips taken by his family back in 2017.

“There is a concerning tendency of increasingly careless governance within this federal government,” Trudel analyzed. “I’m also seeing a certain level of complacency when it comes to conflicts of interest.”

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