Feds Allocated Nearly $5 Million for Expenses Related to Johnston's Role as Special Rapporteur: Records

Feds Allocated Nearly $5 Million for Expenses Related to Johnston's Role as Special Rapporteur: Records
David Johnston, Independent Special Rapporteur on Foreign Interference, appears as a witness at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 6, 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Isaac Teo

The federal government had earmarked almost $5 million to pay for the legal and publicity fees of consultants who were sole-sourced to aid David Johnston in his former role as independent special rapporteur (ISR) on foreign interference, records show.

“The Privy Council Office committed to ensuring the Independent Special Rapporteur had the resources he needed to complete his work,” said an Inquiry of Ministry document tabled in Parliament, obtained and reviewed by Blacklock’s Reporter.

“Funding was provided to support the requirements he identified such as contracted legal services and salary costs.”

The records show a $4,496,887.50 contract was awarded to Torys LLP, a Toronto law firm, to assist Mr. Johnston. The manner it was awarded was “sole-source,” said the document. According to previous reports, the lawyer assigned as Mr. Johnston’s top counsel was Sheila Block, a Liberal Party donor, whose role was opposed by opposition MPs over concerns surrounding conflict of interest.

“I don't see Ms. Block’s providing contributions to political parties as a conflict of interest,” Mr. Johnston told the House of Commons Procedure and House Affairs committee on June 6, defending the lawyer as a “thoughtful, impartial person of great integrity.”

“I just have every confidence in her, and that's shared widely across the land regarding her as one of the preeminent councils that we have in this country.”

Credibility Questioned

The Inquiry disclosures were prompted by questions from Conservative MPs Scot Davidson, Corey Tochor, and Michelle Rempel Garner, respectively.

In an article by Ms. Garner on Substack on Sept. 18, the MP shared the version of the Inquiry document she received from cabinet that responded specifically to her questions.

In her copy, the Privy Council Office wrote that the contract to Torys LLP was for six months of work spanning from April 21 to Oct. 31. It added that the agency does not have a contract with Navigator Ltd. It was previously reported that Mr. Johnston had retained at the beginning of his mandate the services of the firm, which specializes in crisis management.

“The company was subcontracted by Torys LLP within their overall contract,” the document said. “Expenses are not anticipated to reach the full value of the contract, in light of the Independent Special Rapporteur finalizing his work earlier than expected.”

Mr. Johnston tendered his resignation on June 9. He said at the time it was due to the "highly partisan atmosphere" around his appointment. The Commons voted 174 to 150 to have him “step aside” from his roles 10 days earlier.

Mr. Johnston, who served as governor-general between Oct. 1, 2010, and Oct. 2, 2017, was appointed as ISR by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on March 15 of this year. His credibility, however, was questioned by opposition parties over his past connection with Mr. Trudeau and his active membership with the Trudeau Foundation.

‘Tone’ Advice

Ms. Garner’s copy also shows a $28,238.70 contract was awarded to RKESTRA Communications Corporation, a public relations firm based in Ottawa. Similar to Torys LLP, the contract was granted in a “sole-source” manner.

The Commons Inquiry indicated the RKESTRA contract was signed June 26, nearly two weeks after Mr. Johnston resigned. It was for four days' work from the day the contract was signed till the end of June. The work included “identif[ing] columnists and key opinion leaders” to communicate about the special rapporteur.

Details listed also involved providing “tone” advice, “media training and coaching and interview preparation,” “confirm[ing] key/target audiences and communication methodologies,” “act[ing] as a liaison between the ISR and members of the media,” and monitoring “how messages were delivered/received.”

Valérie Gervais, founder and CEO of RKESTRA, said the duration of the contract stated in the Inquiry document was incorrect, and that she worked as Mr. Johnston’s publicist from late May to July.

“I was initially hired for five days,” she said on Sept. 19, reported Blacklock’s. “Due to the events that followed I was asked to support for longer.”

“My role was logistical,” she added. “I served as a point of contact for media, sought out information requested by media and coordinated interviews.”

The inquiry records obtained by Blacklock’s said Mr. Johnston received $1,600 a day in his role as ISR. “The actual expenditures for the Independent Special Rapporteur have not yet been finalized,” said the Inquiry.

Mr. Johnston in his May 23 First Report opposed a public inquiry into foreign interference. Under questioning on June 6 at the House affairs committee, he acknowledged he never saw “every bit of information” regarding foreign agents.

“Am I confident that we saw every bit of information that we would like to have had or perhaps should have had, given the ocean of information? The answer is no,” he said.

On Sept. 7, the Liberal government appointed Québec Court of Appeal Justice Marie-Josée Hogue to conduct an inquiry, with support from opposition parties. Her initial report is due Feb. 19, 2024.

Noé Chartier, Omid Ghoreishi, and Peter Wilson contributed to this report.