Liberals block bid to force campaign strategist to testify about MPs' budgets

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals successfully blocked an opposition bid Monday to force one of the party’s chief campaign strategists to testify about IT contracts paid for out of the taxpayer-funded budgets of Liberal MPs. The Conservatives say questions about the contracts remain.

Tom Pitfield's Data Sciences company has contracts with most Liberal MPs

Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett is accusing Liberal MPs of taking part in a "cover-up" regarding taxpayer funds connected to a Liberal campaign insider. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals successfully blocked an opposition bid Monday to force one of the party's chief campaign strategists to testify about IT contracts paid for out of the taxpayer-funded budgets of Liberal MPs.

After dragging out a two-hour ethics committee meeting for more than five hours, Liberal MP Brenda Shanahan abruptly moved to adjourn the meeting, which was called to discuss summoning testimony from Tom Pitfield, a longtime friend of Trudeau who ran the Liberals' digital operations during the 2015 and 2019 elections.

"Today, the Trudeau Liberals blocked an investigation into Liberal MPs using taxpayer dollars to subsidize their political operations," said Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett, who had tabled a motion to call Pitfield to testify.

Barrett said he plans to try to find out more about contracts between Pitfield's company Data Sciences and 97 per cent of the members of the Liberal caucus.

Tom Pitfield (right) takes part in a panel discussion with Scott Goodstein of Revolution Messaging (left) and Teddy Goff, chief tech and digital strategist for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign at the 2016 Liberal Biennial Convention in Winnipeg on Friday, May 27, 2016. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

"Clearly, there is more to this scheme than the Trudeau Liberals are telling Canadians," Barrett said in a statement. "Conservatives will continue to fight for Canadians and get answers to end the cover-up."

Barrett's motion came after the Globe and Mail revealed that Liberal MPs have been using their taxpayer-funded members' budgets to pay for services from two companies that also provide services to the Liberal Party of Canada: Data Sciences and NGP Van, an American political campaign software company the Liberals use to run their Liberalist campaign database.

The Liberals have maintained that there is a firewall between the services provided to MPs to help them with their constituency work and the services provided to the Liberal Party to do things like raise money and keep track of voter support.

'Cover-up' vs. 'witch hunt'

The controversy comes as rumours are swirling on Parliament Hill of another federal election call in the coming weeks.

Liberal MPs today accused the Conservatives of going after Pitfield because of his friendship with Trudeau, and of engaging in a "witch hunt."

Liberal MPs on the committee accused the Conservatives of using taxpayer resources to collect information for their party's CIMS campaign database. They cited examples of Conservative MPs' staffers adding constituency information to CIMS or accessing it while being paid to handle constituency or Parliament Hill work on behalf of MPs.

They suggested that the issue should be handled by the House of Commons Board of Internal Economy, which oversees how MPs use their budgets, and that any study of the question should look at the Conservatives as well.

The debate over the Liberal database contracts provided a glimpse into the secretive world of political party databases and data-mining.

Parties exempt from privacy rules

While government departments and private companies are governed by federal privacy laws which dictate how they must handle the private information of Canadians, federal political parties are exempt from those rules.

That has allowed political parties to build valuable databases with private information about Canadians and their political inclinations over the years. Because they are exempt from the law, they have no obligation to tell Canadians what information their databases contain about them.

In May, Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien closed the file on a complaint regarding the data-harvesting practices of Canada's three largest federal political parties, saying parties weren't covered by privacy laws and they couldn't be made subject to the law that governs private companies because their activities don't qualify as commercial.

Speaking during Monday's hearing, Conservative MP Jacques Gourde suggested the House of Commons provide software to help all MPs manage their constituency work rather than allowing parties to develop their own software, which is more difficult to keep separate from party databases.

Gourde said that with the decline in the use of land lines, more constituents are using cellphones — contact information that can be found in the U.S. but not in Canada.

"We all have the same problem – we aren't able to reach our constituents anymore," he said.

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca


Elizabeth Thompson

Senior Reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.

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