(Bloomberg) — A Canadian parliamentary committee will compel WE Charity’s chief financial officer to testify as it broadens its probe of an organization mired in controversy over receiving a no-bid contract from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government. The charity previously had paid Trudeau family members to appear at its events.
WE landed at the heart of a conflict-of-interest investigation last year after Trudeau failed to recuse himself from a government decision to award the charity the contract to distribute pandemic aid.
The House of Commons ethics committee on Friday agreed to issue a legal summons to Victor Li after committee chairman Chris Warkentin said Li refused an invitation to voluntarily testify. Summons are rare, and those who disobey an order to appear before a committee can face arrest. The multiparty committee also agreed to issue a summons to WE’s former director of government relations, Sofia Marquez.
“We have been attempting to finalize the WE study in parliament for seven months. Mr. Victor Li is the key financial officer of the Kielburger organization with their multiple list of companies,” said Charlie Angus, a committee member from the New Democratic Party. “I would find it very, very shocking that a financial officer of a major charity simply refuses to testify to Parliament.”
Li is on medical leave from WE Charity and unable to testify, WE said in an emailed response to questions. The Kielburger brothers have confirmed their willingness to appear before the ethics committee, it said.
The WE organization for years has courted politicians, billionaires and celebrities from Prince Harry to Oprah Winfrey. Last year, it landed at the heart of a conflict-of-interest controversy after winning an uncontested deal from Trudeau’s government to distribute pandemic aid.
An uproar ensued when it emerged that WE had previously paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees and expenses to Trudeau’s mother, brother and wife. The resulting public scrutiny raised questions about WE’s complex corporate structure — one that mixed philanthropy with for-profit activities — as well as its vast real estate holdings and dozens of private entities spanning the globe.
Many of the questions have swirled around Li, the finance chief for both the charity and its for-profit arm, known as ME to WE. Last July, a separate group of lawmakers — the parliamentary finance committee — requested six witnesses to testify, including WE’s founding brothers, Craig and Marc Kielburger, and Trudeau himself. Li was the only one among them who never appeared, telling the committee that he was on medical leave.
Li joined the organization in 1999 and has played a key role in an operation that has come under criticism for blurring the lines among philanthropic, business and Kielburger family interests. In an investigation published in December, Bloomberg Businessweek identified more than 30 entities spread across North America, the U.K. and Kenya linked to the Kielburgers or top WE executives. Li served as chief financial officer, director or a company signatory for at least 14 of those.
Li also signed the annual filings and articles of incorporation for three companies created to manage outside consulting work for Marc Kielburger’s wife and inheritance planning for Craig and his wife. Asked last year to comment for the Bloomberg story, WE said Li simply served “in an administrative capacity” and that those entities should not be considered relevant to the “work of WE.”
Ontario property records also show that one luxury residential property on Toronto’s lakefront traded hands between Li and members of the Kielburger family. WE didn’t immediately respond to a question about the transaction.
The organization’s main entity in Canada, WE Charity, had development projects in nine countries and annual revenue of C$66 million ($52 million) before the brothers announced in September that the political scandal had taken its toll and they were shutting it down.
The move, however, failed to quell scrutiny. And in recent weeks new allegations have emerged about WE’s overseas operations beyond those covered in the Bloomberg Businessweek story.
Earlier this month, Canada’s national broadcaster, CBC, aired an investigation that found evidence of multiple donors being credited for funding the same water development project in Kenya. In a statement responding to the documentary, WE Charity denied collecting multiple donations that exceeded the cost of the bore hole, saying the money also funded additional elements such as a pumping station and solar panels.
The CBC also reported that when donors toured Baraka, a WE-funded hospital, employees were told to make sure it was filled with patients to look busy. CBC obtained text messages sent between Kenyan WE staff during a visit by U.K. donors in August 2017. “Beecham group on way to baraka in 10 minutes,” one staffer advised her colleagues. “Please ensure lots of patients. Thanks!”
WE told the CBC that the text messages were misinterpreted and that the staffer was urging her colleagues “to ask the patients if they would be willing to interact with donors.”
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