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MPs vote to issue summons for Kielburger brothers to testify at ethics committee

OTTAWA — WE Charity co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger are proposing to testify after being summoned by a House of Commons committee, but the charity's lawyer says they won't answer questions about their organization's dealings with donors.

OTTAWA — WE Charity co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger are proposing to testify after being summoned by a House of Commons committee, but the charity's lawyer says they won't answer questions about their organization's dealings with donors.

Members of the ethics committee voted unanimously Monday to summon the brothers, after the pair last week declined an invitation to testify.

Should they not appear by this Friday to testify for at least three hours, the committee declared, they may face potential censure by the House of Commons.

In response, the charity's lawyer, William McDowell, wrote the committee later Monday to offer "a way out of this impasse."

He asked that he be allowed to accompany the Kielburgers to protect their asserted right not to answer questions on matters that NDP committee member Charlie Angus has already referred to the RCMP and the Canada Revenue Agency.

"They should not be expected to answer questions on those matters which members have referred to the RCMP and CRA, out of respect for the integrity of any investigations which those agencies may pursue," McDowell said.

"Should the committee grant me standing, I would intervene as necessary to protect our clients' rights."

The Kielburgers had been scheduled to appear before the committee on Monday in what was to have been its final day of testimony in its months-long examination of the WE Charity affair.

The committee is probing the Liberal government's decision last summer to pay up to $43.5-million to WE Charity to administer a now-cancelled pandemic-related student volunteering program, despite the organization's close ties to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family.

But the probe took off in another direction late last month after a former donor, U.S. television journalist Reed Cowan, alleged that the plaque on a school he had funded in Kenya had been replaced with a plaque in the name of another donor.

WE said the incident was an unfortunate mistake; Angus called it proof of a "pattern of duplicitous relations with donors'' and asked the RCMP and CRA to investigate.

Both Angus and Conservative committee member Michael Barrett made it clear they want to question the Kielburgers about the allegations, which prompted the brothers to cancel their scheduled appearance Monday.

 "This is a direct challenge to the powers of Parliament to investigate spending and issues of insider access that are well within the purview of our committee," Angus told the committee Monday, arguing that the brothers should be compelled to appear through a summons.

"And it is well within the constitutional privileges that we have as democratically elected members representing the people of Canada."

But Guy Giorno, a legal adviser to WE Charity, said in an interview that MPs are overstepping their authority.

"If their intention is to cover the same ground that they themselves have placed before the police and the same income tax allegations they themselves placed before the Canada Revenue Agency, then that's not appropriate," said Giorno, a one-time chief of staff to former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.

"It reflects a real misunderstanding of what parliamentary powers exist for. Parliament exists to hold the government to account, to vote taxes and control the spending and to pass laws ... Parliament does not exist to be a law enforcer against private citizens."

"Being elected in your riding doesn't give you a mandate to start issuing search warrants and investigating alleged offences of your neighbours," Giorno added.

Moreover, he questioned how the allegations have anything to do with the original controversy over Trudeau's potential conflict of interest in not recusing himself from the decision to have WE administer the student grant program — a matter that is under investigation by the federal ethics commissioner.

As a former high-level partisan operative himself, Giorno said he understands why MPs are trying to make the most of the WE affair.

"But that's why I think it's so troubling. This is politicians being politicians and trying to score points ... but they're doing it in a field that involves a non-government entity, a charitable organization outside government," he said.

"Because I understand the partisan nature, I understand why parliamentary committees are the last bodies in the country you want to be handling matters related to law enforcement or things that are better left to the judicial system."

The Kielburger brothers have already testified for four hours at the Commons finance committee last summer, after controversy over the student-grant program erupted.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2021.

Joan Bryden and Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press