Politics

Crowdfunding platform GoFundMe lobbied MPs before testifying on truck convoy protest

Popular crowdfunding platform GoFundMe lobbied members of Parliament behind the scenes before company executives testified publicly before two parliamentary committees looking into the truck convoy protest that paralyzed downtown Ottawa.

Lobbyists arranged meetings with members of two parliamentary committees

Police enforce an injunction against participants in the anti-vaccine mandate convoy protest in Ottawa on Feb. 19, 2022. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Grappling with the political fallout from hosting a fundraiser for the convoy protest that paralyzed downtown Ottawa, crowdfunding platform GoFundMe lobbied members of Parliament behind the scenes before company executives testified publicly before two parliamentary committees.

According to the federal government's lobby registry, GoFundMe representatives met with three MPs on the public safety and national security committee and the committee's chairman, Liberal MP Jim Carr, in the days leading up to the company's public appearance before the committee on March 3.

Liberal MP Jim Carr, chair of the the public safety and national security committee. (Jeff McIntosh / Canadian Press)

In each case, the lobbyist from the public relations firm PAA Advisory who arranged the meeting had ties to the individual MP's party.

The registry also shows PAA Advisory arranged a meeting on GoFundMe's behalf with two Conservative Party research staffers.

Lobbying MPs on committees is not uncommon on Parliament Hill. Ethics watchdogs point out, however, that such lobbying can help those who can afford it to better navigate government, get meetings more quickly and obtain more influence with politicians.

The only party represented on the 12-member committee that GoFundMe didn't meet with was the Bloc Québécois. Bloc MP Kristina Michaud, a vice-chair of the committee, said company representatives never contacted her and she was not aware that GoFundMe had lobbied four of her fellow committee members prior to the company's appearance.

The committee voted unanimously in early February to call officials from GoFundMe to answer questions about their convoy fundraiser, which at the time had collected more than $10.1 million to support the anti-vaccine mandate protest in Ottawa and elsewhere.

The protest tied downtown Ottawa in knots for three weeks and blocked several border crossings.

While the meetings were arranged by registered lobbyists working with PAA Advisory, MPs interviewed by CBC News said they met with GoFundMe president Juan Benitez and the company's general counsel Kim Wilford, who later testified. The MPs said they don't believe their meetings with the GoFundMe executives had an impact on the outcome of the hearing.

A 'listening exercise'

The lobbyist registry also shows Benitez and Wilford met virtually with the finance committee chair, Liberal MP Peter Fonseca, on March 16 — the day before GoFundMe appeared before the finance committee.

"For the most part it was a listening exercise ... " said Fonseca. "They provided an overview of the company and what transpired with the convoy campaign."

Paypal reported lobbying three members of the public safety committee about "financial institutions" in the days leading up to its testimony on March 3. There is no sign of anyone registering to lobby committee members on behalf of two other companies that appeared before the committee that day — GiveSendGo and Stripe.

Police enforce an injunction against protesters in Ottawa on Feb. 19, 2022. Some had been camped in their trucks near Parliament Hill for weeks. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

GiveSendGo hosted the Freedom Convoy 2022 online crowdfunding campaign once GoFundMe shut down the initial multi-million-dollar fundraiser.

Jacob Wells, co-founder of GiveSendGo, said he was surprised to learn that his rivals at GoFundMe had hired lobbyists to help them meet with MPs before both crowdfunding companies appeared before the public safety committee.

"We were not aware of this and we ourselves had NO contact with any MPs or any other government officials prior to that appearance," Wells said in an email.

GoFundMe declined to comment. Lobbyists from PAA Advisory have not yet responded to several messages from CBC News.

Because there is a delay between a lobbyist's meeting with an MP and the public report of that meeting in the lobbying registry, it's not known yet if more meetings were arranged on GoFundMe's behalf or if its lobbying efforts are continuing.

Access for those who can afford it

Lobbying members of Parliament is legal as long as companies and lobbyists respect the rules by — for example — registering with the lobbying commissioner, outlining the government decisions they are seeking to influence and reporting when they meet with a politician or a top public servant.

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, said such lobbying efforts can win access and influence in government for those who can pay for it.

"If you can buy access, you have a chance at influence that a lot of people don't have because they can't afford the lobbyist with the connections to the decision maker," he said.

Conacher said lobbyists can charge hundreds of dollars an hour for their services and can get meetings with elected officials much faster than average citizens.

Lobbyists' meetings with MPs can allow companies to fine-tune their public appearances, said Conacher, who has testified on behalf of Democracy Watch in parliamentary hearings.

"That will all inform how you draft your opening statement and you can prepare to answer their questions in a way that neutralizes their concern, if not reverses their position," he said.

A wide range of lobbying targets

According to the lobbying registry, PAA Advisory first registered to lobby on behalf of GoFundMe on Feb. 11, a day after it was announced that the company had agreed to testify before the public safety committee.

In the registration, lobbyists for PAA Advisory said they planned to communicate "with parliamentary committees and their membership to prepare testimony as requested by elected officials," to inform them of GoFundMe's policies and practices and to engage "with regulators and government institutions on Canada's Anti-Money Laundering and Anti-Terrorist Financing Regime and the establishment of the new Financial Crimes Agency."

According to the registration, PAA Advisory planned to lobby Finance Canada, the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FINTRAC), the House of Commons, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions Canada, Public Safety Canada, the Senate and the Prime Minister's Office.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rises during question period in the House of Commons. His office and the Commons itself were among the entities singled out for lobbying by PAA Advisory. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The first meeting set up by PAA Advisory for GoFundMe — with Jim Carr — took place a week after the company registered to lobby on GoFundMe's behalf.

"The (committee) meeting with GoFundMe was a public one, televised even," a vacationing Carr said via e-mail. "I prepped with them about how committee meetings function. That's it."

The following week, on Feb. 24, Liberal MP Pam Damoff and NDP MP Alistair MacGregor met separately with GoFundMe.

Damoff said the meeting was an informal chance to talk with Benitez and Wilford about the steps GoFundMe took during the Ottawa protest.

"It was just to be very factual about what happened and when and what their process was, what their terms and conditions are and how they follow them," she said.

Damoff said it's not unusual for companies to seek meetings with committee members.

A 'fact-gathering exercise'

MacGregor said he sometimes meets with witnesses scheduled to testify before committee, in part because he gets little time to ask questions during committee meetings. The meeting with GoFundMe allowed him to focus his line of questioning during the committee meeting, he said.

"I accepted the meeting because we were in the process of trying to learn all we could about GoFundMe, about the particular fundraiser it organized," he said. "And I thought this would be a great opportunity just to learn a little bit more about their company, hear their side of the story about why they got involved in this and also learn a little bit more about their terms of service.

"I approached it purely as an information and fact-gathering exercise."

MacGregor said the company talked about its conversations with the Ottawa Police Service and its terms of service.

Conservative MP Dane Lloyd, right, with then-Conservative leader Andrew Scheer in the House of Commons. Lloyd said GoFundMe was "very concerned about their PR." (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Conservative MP Dane Lloyd was the last public safety committee member to meet with GoFundMe's executives — just two days before their appearance before the committee.

"GoFundMe … was very concerned about their PR from this and so they were very concerned going into the committee meeting, I think, about how it was going to turn out," said Lloyd. "And so I think they wanted to meet with MPs to sort of tell their story a bit, to put a preface on things before the committee meeting."

Lloyd said the meeting was part of his research for the committee meeting and did inspire his first question.

"They did tell me that nobody from the government had ever reached out to them during the crisis and that really piqued my interest," said Lloyd. "That's why I asked the question to put it on the record."

Lloyd said witnesses appearing before committees sometimes ask to meet with MPs first.

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