Senior border agency executives ‘waste time’ during ArriveCAN testimony

On Tuesday, CBSA President Erin O'Gorman refused to say what, if any, consequences her staff would receive for their roles in enabling the ArriveCAN rip-off of taxpayers.

Senior border agency executives ‘waste time’ during ArriveCAN testimony
The Canadian Press / Sean Kilpatrick and LinkedIn / Chulaka Ailapperuma
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Two key border agency executives plead ignorance to the ArriveCAN boondoggle, during testimony at the parliamentary standing committee on Public Accounts.

Conservative MP Michael Barrett later hammered the Canada Border Service Agency's (CBSA) acting director, Chaluka Ailapperuma, about the intimate, boozy dinners his staff had with ArriveCAN contractors Christian Firth and Darren Anthony, the principals and sole employees at GC Strategies, the two-person IT staffing firm specializing in aiding companies with the federal government procurement process.

Firth met frequently with Paul Girard, former chief information officer at the Treasury Board, and Philippe Johnston, chief information officer at the National Research Council, at coffee shops and restaurants. 

He denied paying any bribes or kickbacks to federal managers.

“What would be their contribution to those discussions?” asked MP Barrett. “I didn’t have much conversation with Mr. Firth or Mr. Anthony about programming,” said Ailapperuma. “I was mostly speaking with the team members I was working with.”

“Who organized this dinner?” he asked. “I believe it was Mr. Firth,” replied Ailapperuma. “Did anyone talk to him?” The acting director said no official conversations took place.

Firth testified last month to meeting with federal managers for drinks over lucrative government contracts. He was the first federal contractor in 111 years to be cited for contempt of Parliament.

“The host invites the two government employees, a subcontractor of GC Strategies and the two principles of GC Strategies,” said Barrett, “and the government officials don’t speak to the dinner hosts at a table of five people.”

“To not talk about the only business that GC Strategies does seems incredible. Do you think this sounds believable?” he asked. “No one talked about coding,” replied Ailapperuma. “We were talking about people’s lives.”

“Anything talked about ArriveCAN, was about the challenges of implementing ArriveCAN,” continued the acting director. “They’re not programmers,” said MP Barrett.

“They don’t do any technical work. They bill,” he clarified. “They billed more than 1,500 times.” The ArriveCAN app has cost taxpayers at least $59.5 million, according to the most updated figures.

At committee on October 20, 2022, GC Strategies said it subcontracted all IT work for ArriveCAN to several companies, charging up to a 30% commission rate. 

In records tabled before the committee, between January 2011 and February 2024, GC Strategies received 105 contracts worth $100.3 million.

“You talked about the grind of ArriveCAN, but for GC Strategies, there was no grind,” said MP Barrett. “It was only grift.”

The firm billed Ottawa for the project between $1,000 to $1,500 per worker daily. The average per diem cost for external resources nearly doubled ($675) that of equivalent IT positions in the public service.

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

Records show Firth’s company, a two-man operation working from his home in Woodlawn, Ontario, received 118 separate federal contracts, reported Blacklock’s Reporter. Payments totalled $107.7 million. 

However, the number of federal contracts given to the firm and their value has been disputed several times as of late.

According to a census conducted by La Presse, GC Strategies received 140 contracts since 2015, totalling nearly $258 million from several federal departments and agencies. 

Auditors to date have identified numerous irregularities involving contracts with GC Strategies. RCMP officers raided the contractor’s residence last month to obtain electronic devices on suspicion of fraudulent billing and resume fraud.

On Tuesday, CBSA President Erin O'Gorman refused to say what, if any, consequences her staff would receive for their roles in enabling the ArriveCAN rip-off of taxpayers.

“I refer to ongoing investigations, so I don’t have a document or report,” she testified before the standing committee on Public Accounts. “I have previously expressed [that] these are internal examinations of employee behavior and conduct,” clarified the executive.

Bloc MP Nathalie Sinclair-Desgagne interjected, demanding a direct answer to her question. “What’s going to happen to those employees that lack judgment, that broke the rules, and wasted taxpayers’ money?” she asked.

“There’s the issue of hospitality — and is there a link to wasting taxpayers’ money there — I’m not sure,” replied O’Gorman. She acknowledged there is a “values and ethics issue at play” regarding her agency’s handling of bloated ArriveCAN contracts.

The agency head continued to dodge the question. “We will be looking at [that] with employees who have engaged contrary to the code of conduct,” said O’Gorman. 

Conservative MP Larry Brock asked about her meetings with the Privy Council Office (PCO) and Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) prior to testimony on ArriveCAN before the Operations Committee. 

“Did you meet with PMO officials?” asked Conservative MP Larry Brock. “No,” replied O’Gorman.

“Did you meet with PCO officials?” he asked. “I don’t know the specific meeting you’re talking about,” she said. 

MP Brock referenced meetings one hour prior to testimony last October 24 and the following day.

“Did you meet with PMO officials on both of those dates?” he asked again. “I would have to review my calendar,” said O’Gorman. “I don’t recall meeting in person with PMO officials.”

The CBSA head could not ascertain whether she discussed ArriveCAN with senior government officials. “I have never met with PMO,” she said.

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