Former CBSA head blames ArriveScam scandal on faulty app, not agency

'If I could roll back the clock there would have been some changes, but I remain proud of the work I did during the pandemic,' testified John Ossowski, the former $273,000-a year president of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

Former CBSA head blames ArriveScam scandal on faulty app, not agency
The Canadian Press / Adrian Wyld
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The former federal executive responsible for Arrivescam testified he was proud of the IT project despite the $59.5 million cost to taxpayers. The pandemic application is subject to ongoing audits and police investigations. 

John Ossowski, the former $273,000-a year president of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), deflected wrongdoing and blamed others, MPs learned. 

“If I could roll back the clock there would have been some changes, but I remain proud of the work I did and my team did during the pandemic,” he testified under summons at the Commons government operations committee.

Ossowski received a summons after he declined to appear voluntarily last month, reported Blacklock’s Reporter. He retired in 2022 as CBSA president after managing Arrivescam. 

“I am incredibly proud of how our Agency responded,” Ossowski testified at 2022 hearings of the Commons government operations committee. He described Arrivescam as good value for taxpayers.

“I think we had incredible value for money given the context we were operating in and the need that it satisfied,” said Ossowski, a sentiment he reiterated on Thursday. “For me, I think it was exceptional value for money.”

Conservative MP Kelly Block expressed astonishment. “It is absolutely mind boggling to have the former president of the Canada Border Services Agency state he remains proud of the work his department undertook,” she said.

“It is actually the Agency that has served as the bellwether for the complete debacle we are studying now known as Arrivescam and all of the other issues when it comes to procurement and contracting across all departments in the Government of Canada,” said MP Block.

Evidence shows the agency misrepresented the cost of the program to Parliament and concealed numerous contracting irregularities, reported Blacklock’s Reporter

GC Strategies, the lead contractor for the application, received $19.1 million in sole-sourced contracts under Ossowski’s presidency. The two-man firm submitted invoices at a rate equal to $2,600 an hour. 

“We invoice monthly,” principal Kristian Firth earlier testified. “We were paid to recruit and find resources who built the app,” he clarified. “This was not our app.”

The company’s office, a private home in Woodlawn, Ontario, was raided by police April 16. RCMP received a warrant to obtain personal electronic devices on suspicion of fraudulent billing and resume fraud.

“Who is responsible for rules that were in place to ensure tax dollars were wisely spent and accounted for, but the system broke down?” said Conservative MP John Williamson, chair of the public accounts committee. “All the rules were in place,” testified Ossowski. 

“It appears unfortunately they were not always followed,” he said. “I make no excuses.”

Executive Ossowski testified that managers “never corresponded with me or asked me for any advice on anything to do with the contracts.” He pleaded ignorance to federal managers meeting the contractor for lunch and drinks in breach of public service ethics rules.

“Were you aware of Agency employees hanging out with GC Strategies?” asked Liberal MP Iqra Khalid. “No, that was never brought to my attention,” replied Ossowski.

“You were never informed about anything whatsoever with respect to GC Strategies being selected for ArriveCan?” asked Bloc MP Nathalie Sinclair-Desgagné. “I was not involved in the vendor selection process,” replied Ossowski. “There is no record that I was involved.”

He did not know who awarded contracts to GC Strategies. The firm received 46 contracts for the pandemic aid.

“Do you think you did a good job as head of the Agency?” asked Bloc MP Nathalie Sinclair-Desgagné. “I always tried to do the best I could possibly do,” replied Ossowski.

Paul Girard, former chief information officer at the Treasury Board, was also named in the summons. He met with Firth at coffee shops and restaurants but could not testify Thursday due to illness.

“Those two individuals are very key to our study,” said Conservative MP John Nater, sponsor of the motion to summon the pair. Girard and Ossowski were named by other witnesses as executives who played an instrumental role in the launch of Arrivescam.

Firth earlier denied paying bribes or kickbacks to federal managers. “We don’t give gifts and do bribes to win contracts,” he said.

Executive Ossowski currently serves as managing director with PricewaterhouseCoopers, a federal contractor.

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