Crowdfunding platform GoFundMe lobbied MPs ahead of giving evidence on truck convoy protest

Struggling with the political fallout from organizing a fundraiser for the convoy protest that paralyzed downtown Ottawa, crowdfunding platform GoFundMe lobbied MPs behind the scenes before the Company executives did not testify publicly before two parliamentary committees.

According to the federal government’s lobbyist registry, GoFundMe representatives met with three MPs from the Public Safety and National Safety Committee and the committee’s chair, Liberal MP Jim Carr, in the days leading up to the company’s public appearance. before the committee on March 3.

Liberal MP Jim Carr, chair of the Public Safety and National Security Committee. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

In each case, the lobbyist for the public relations firm PAA Advisory who organized the meeting had ties to the party of the MP concerned.

The log also shows that PAA Advisory arranged a meeting on behalf of GoFundMe with two Conservative Party research staff.

It is not uncommon to lobby MPs on committees on Parliament Hill. But ethics watchdogs point out that such lobbying can help those with the means to navigate government better, get meetings faster and gain more leverage with politicians.

The only party represented on the 12-member committee that GoFundMe did not meet with was the Bloc Québécois. Bloc MP Kristina Michaud, vice-chair of the committee, said company representatives never contacted her and she was unaware that GoFundMe lobbied four of her fellow committee members before the appearance. of the company.

The committee voted unanimously in early February to call in GoFundMe officials to answer questions about their convoy fundraiser, which at the time raised more than $10.1 million to support the protest against the mandate. anti-vaccine in Ottawa and elsewhere.

The protest tied up downtown Ottawa for three weeks and blocked several border crossings.

While the meetings were hosted by registered lobbyists working with PAA Advisory, MPs interviewed by CBC News said they met with GoFundMe president Juan Benitez and the company’s general counsel, Kim Wilford, who later testified. The deputies said they did not believe their meetings with GoFundMe executives had any impact on the outcome of the hearing.

A “listening exercise”

The lobbyist registry also shows that Benitez and Wilford met virtually with finance committee chair, Liberal MP Peter Fonseca, on March 16 – the day before GoFundMe appeared before the finance committee.

“For the most part it was a listening exercise…” Fonseca said. “They provided insight into the business and what happened with the convoy campaign.”

Paypal reported lobbying three members of the public safety committee about “financial institutions” in the days leading up to his March 3 testimony. day — GiveSendGo and Stripe.

Police enforce an injunction against protesters in Ottawa on February 19, 2022. Some had camped in their trucks near Parliament Hill for weeks. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

GiveSendGo hosted the Freedom Convoy 2022 online crowdfunding campaign after GoFundMe ended the first multi-million dollar fundraiser.

Jacob Wells, co-founder of GiveSendGo, said he was surprised to learn that his rivals at GoFundMe had hired lobbyists to help them meet with MPs before the two crowdfunding companies appeared before the public safety committee.

“We were unaware of this and had NO contact ourselves with MPs or other government officials prior to this appearance,” Wells said in an email.

GoFundMe declined to comment. PAA Advisory lobbyists have yet to respond to several messages from CBC News.

Because there is a delay between a lobbyist meeting with an MP and the public report of that meeting in the Lobbying Registry, it is not yet known if any other meetings have been held on behalf of GoFundMe or if his lobbying efforts continue.

Access for those who can afford it

Lobbying parliamentarians is legal as long as companies and lobbyists follow the rules, such as registering with the Commissioner of Lobbying, describing the government decisions they seek to influence, and reporting when they meet a politician or high official.

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, said such lobbying efforts can gain access and influence within government for those who can pay for it.

“If you can buy access, you have a chance to have influence that a lot of people don’t have because they can’t afford the lobbyist with ties to the decision maker,” he said. .

Conacher said lobbyists can charge hundreds of dollars an hour for their services and can get meetings with elected officials much faster than average citizens.

Lobbyists’ meetings with MPs can allow companies to hone their public appearances, said Conacher, who testified on behalf of Democracy Watch in parliamentary hearings.

“All of this will inform how you will write your opening statement and you can be prepared to answer their questions in a way that will neutralize their concern or even reverse their position,” he said.

A wide range of lobbying targets

According to the Lobbying Registry, PAA Advisory first registered to lobby on behalf of GoFundMe on February 11, a day after it was announced that the company had agreed to testify before the Public Safety Committee.

During the taping, lobbyists at PAA Advisory said they plan to communicate “with parliamentary committees and their members to prepare testimony requested by elected officials,” to brief them on GoFundMe’s policies and practices, and to engage “with regulators and government institutions on the anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing regime and the creation of the new Financial Crimes Agency.”

According to the recording, PAA Advisory planned to lobby Finance Canada, the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Center of Canada (FINTRAC), the House of Commons, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions Canada, Public Safety Canada, the Senate and the Prime Minister. Minister’s office.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rises during Question Period in the House of Commons. His office and the House of Commons itself were among the entities designated for lobbying by PAA Advisory. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

PAA Advisory’s first meeting for GoFundMe — with Jim Carr — took place a week after the company signed up to lobby on behalf of GoFundMe.

“The (committee’s) meeting with GoFundMe was public, even televised,” Carr said on vacation via email. “I prepared with them the operation of the committee meetings. That’s all.”

The following week, on February 24, Liberal MP Pam Damoff and NDP MP Alistair MacGregor met separately with GoFundMe.

Damoff said the meeting was an informal opportunity to discuss with Benitez and Wilford the actions taken by GoFundMe during the protest in Ottawa.

“It was just to be very factual about what happened and when and what their process was, what their terms and conditions are and how they follow them,” she said.

Damoff said it’s not unusual for companies to seek meetings with committee members.

A “fact-gathering exercise”

MacGregor said he sometimes meets with witnesses to testify before the committee, in part because he has little time to ask questions during committee meetings. The meeting with GoFundMe allowed him to focus his line of questions during the committee meeting, he said.

“I agreed to the meeting because we were trying to learn everything we could about GoFundMe, about the particular fundraiser he was doing,” he said. “And I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn a bit more about their business, to hear their side of the story about why they got involved in this and also to learn a little more about their terms of service.

“I approached it purely as an information and fact-gathering exercise.”

MacGregor said the company spoke about his conversations with the Ottawa Police Service and his terms of service.

Conservative MP Dane Lloyd, right, with then Conservative leader Andrew Scheer in the House of Commons. Lloyd said GoFundMe was “very concerned about their public relations.” (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Tory MP Dane Lloyd was the last member of the Public Safety Committee to meet GoFundMe executives – just two days before they appeared before the committee.

“GoFundMe … was very concerned about their public relations because of this and so they were very concerned about going to the committee meeting, I think, about how it was going to go,” Lloyd said. “And so I think they wanted to meet with MPs to tell their story a bit, to put a preface on things before the committee meeting.”

Lloyd said the meeting was part of his research for the committee meeting and inspired his first question.

“They told me no one from the government ever contacted them during the crisis and that really piqued my interest,” Lloyd said. “That’s why I asked the question to put it on the record.”

Lloyd said witnesses appearing before committees sometimes ask to meet with MPs first.