CRA should audit Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms after judge controversy: Manitoba prof

·4 min read
Earlier this week, Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms president John Carpay  admitted to hiring a private investigator to surveil a Manitoba judge who is presiding over a court challenge the centre is leading. He is now on an indefinite leave of absence.  (CBC - image credit)
Earlier this week, Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms president John Carpay admitted to hiring a private investigator to surveil a Manitoba judge who is presiding over a court challenge the centre is leading. He is now on an indefinite leave of absence. (CBC - image credit)

A University of Manitoba professor who studies the non-profit sector says the Canada Revenue Agency should investigate the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, after it was revealed the centre's president and founder hired a private investigator to follow Manitoba's chief justice.

Karine Levasseur says she's even writing a letter to the CRA asking for an audit of the organization — which is a registered charity with the agency — questioning whether charitable donations should be used for this type of activity.

"Is this something that charities should be engaging in? I would tend to think not," Levasseur said.

The Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is representing a group of Manitoba churches and individuals in a court challenge to Manitoba's pandemic regulations.

On Monday, John Carpay, the head of the organization, admitted in court that he hired someone to tail Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal, who is presiding over the court case and says he plans to give his decision in a few weeks.

At a hearing on Monday, Joyal said he believed he was followed in an attempt to catch him violating the province's COVID-19 regulations, which Carpay later admitted was the case.

Levasseur says she questions whether hiring a private investigator to follow a judge is a legitimate charitable expense.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms reported more than $2.6 million in revenue in 2020, almost all of which came through donations and gifts from other registered charities, according to the CRA's website.

Being a registered charity comes with various benefits, such as not paying income tax, so they need to be held to a high standard, said Levasseur, a political studies professor at the U of M who specializes in public administration.

"My larger concern is that charities must maintain the trust of Canadians, and it's these types of actions that leave me concerned that this could lead to some erosion of trust," she said.

"I also raise concerns that this does trend into a potential invasion of privacy for Justice Glenn Joyal but also for his family."

Christopher Doody, a spokesperson for the Canada Revenue Agency, said he couldn't comment on this specific matter due to confidentiality laws.

However, he said to retain their charitable status, charities must provide a public benefit, and their activities must align with their stated purpose.

A registered charity that undertakes activities that are not charitable may be subject to compliance actions, he said.

At this time, the charitable status of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms has not been revoked, annulled, suspended, or penalized by the CRA, he said.

Questions of oversight

Carpay took responsibility for the decision to hire a private investigator and has since taken an indefinite leave of absence.

But a Toronto lawyer whose work focuses on charities and the non-profit sector says the incident raises serious questions about the Justice Centre's governance and oversight.

"It's a pretty incredible situation. I've never seen any other charity that has done this type of thing, at least that I can think of right now," said Mark Blumberg.

"I think that certainly the organization is going to have to do some thinking around whether it should be a charity, first of all, [and] secondly, whether they have enough oversight over their operations."

Like Levasseur, Blumberg said he's also concerned the incident could impact how much people trust charities.

"One of the most important things that the charity sector has is public trust. And if the charity sector loses public trust, it's not just that money won't come from fundraising," he said.

"It means that people will not listen to charities when they give good advice on … things like 'don't drink and drive' and all sorts of other issues the charities are involved with."

Even if CRA does choose to audit the Justice Centre, it could be a long time before the public knows about it, if it ever finds out at all.

That's because Revenue Canada is prohibited from confirming or denying whether a registered charity is currently under audit, has been selected for audit or has previously been audited. It only makes that knowledge public if the charity's registration has been revoked, annulled or suspended, or when a charity is penalized.

The Winnipeg Police Service has confirmed that it is investigating the incident, though no charges have been laid yet.

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