Former Trudeau Foundation CEO says she resigned after pushback on donation audit
OTTAWA — The former CEO of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation told a parliamentary committee Friday that she resigned from that position earlier this month because of a breakdown in trust on the organization's board of directors.
Pascale Fournier said the tensions arose after she pushed for an independent forensic audit into donations made by Chinese businessmen — and received pushback when she insisted that some members of the board recuse themselves from any such investigation.
In a statement issued after Fournier's testimony, the foundation said it strongly contests her version of events and is looking for an opportunity to schedule its own testimony in rebuttal.
Fournier and eight other board members announced their departure in a public statement April 11 that cited the recent politicization of 2016 and 2017 donations from Chinese billionaire Zhang Bin and another Chinese businessman, Niu Gensheng, that totalled $140,000.
The foundation created an emergency committee in February after the Globe and Mail reported, citing an unnamed source, that the donors had connections to the Chinese government.
Fournier told the House of Commons ethics committee on Friday that the report prompted her to review emails from before her tenure as CEO.
She said she discovered that the China Cultural Industry Association was communicating with foundation employees about omitting information on a donation tax receipt.
After Fournier discovered two different tax receipts associated with the same money, she said she sought to have the details examined by accountants and lawyers.
And she said she wanted members of the board who were involved in the organization's dealings at the time of the donations to recuse themselves from the process.
"Other members were saying, 'Recuse yourself. We want an independent committee,' and that was the heart of the tension," Fournier said.
The Canadian Press reported earlier this month that the website of the China Cultural Industry Association says it adheres to the "total leadership" of the Chinese Communist Party and was formed with state approval. It lists Zhang Bin as its president.
But the Globe and Mail had reported that a different company called Millennium Golden Eagle International (Canada) was listed as the donor on a receipt.
The China Cultural Industry Association says Millennium Golden Eagle International is one of its executive board members and was created with the approval of China's culture ministry. Zhang is listed as chairman of Millennium Golden Eagle International on multiple privately-run Chinese company registries.
The foundation, which provides scholarships and mentorship programs, took significant issue with Fournier's comments in a statement released on Friday.
On behalf of its interim board of directors, Edward Johnson, one of the foundation's founding members, said "we strongly contest several of the statements made during this testimony."
Johnson said that the foundation contests some of the facts or their interpretation by Fournier — though he did not spell out any details — and "the reasons given to justify the resignations of the directors of the board."
He said the foundation is in contact with the committee to set a date for its own testimony, and they "look forward to this opportunity to correct some of the statements and assertions which have been made."
After Fournier's resignation the foundation asked the federal auditor general to look into the donations.
But the auditor general's office denied the request, saying auditing private donations or business dealings falls outside its mandate.
The donations to the foundation named after the current prime minister's father were made in tandem with a $750,000 contribution to the Université de Montréal.
The Globe and Mail cited an unnamed source who alleged that the Chinese government orchestrated the donations in the hopes of influencing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The prime minister has repeatedly said that he has had no involvement with the foundation for about 10 years.
Later reports by Le Devoir, a Quebec-based newspaper, suggest that the donors intended for all of the money to go toward the university, and noted that the businessmen also made a $800,000 contribution to the University of Toronto in 2013.
The House of Commons ethics committee has been trying to get to the bottom of the matter as part of its broader study into foreign interference, amid accusations that Beijing meddled in the last two federal elections.
On Tuesday, the committee is set to hear from the foundation's former CEO, Morris Rosenberg, who was Fournier's predecessor.
Rosenberg also authored a report summing up senior officials' efforts against foreign interference in the 2021 election.
He said on Friday that he continues to welcome an independent inquiry into foreign interference. Former governor general David Johnston, who was appointed to assess the government's response to the issue, is tasked with telling the government whether an inquiry is needed by late May.
On Wednesday, the committee expects to hear from Alexandre Trudeau, the prime minister's brother, who volunteered to testify.
He was a member of the foundation's board of directors when the donations in question were made, Fournier said.
"It is no secret to anyone my brother has been deeply involved in the Pierre Elliott Trudeau foundation for many years, and he will answer questions as they are asked of him," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday at a news conference in New York City.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 24, 2023.
Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press