Charity distressed by flap over request for refund of Trudeau speaking fee

OTTAWA – The New Brunswick charity that sparked a firestorm over Justin Trudeau’s public speaking fees says it’s “deeply distressed” that its attempt to get its money back has been turned into a political football.

The Saint John-based Grace Foundation issued its first public statement Thursday since the controversy erupted late last week, fuelled by local Conservative MP Rob Moore and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office.

“There was never any intention for this matter to become a political topic of discussion on the floor of the House of Commons,” says Ian Webster, chair of the foundation’s board.

“We are deeply distressed about many statements made from various persons,” he says, adding that the board is “most concerned” about remarks from Moore.

Moore has insisted he was asked by board members to put pressure on Trudeau to return the $20,000 fee he charged to headline a fundraising event in June 2012.

Last Friday, the Prime Minister’s Office circulated to reporters a letter in which foundation board member Susan Buck says the event was a “huge disappointment and financial loss for our organization” and asks Trudeau for a refund.

In Thursday’s statement, Webster says the “private letter” was sent in March to the Speakers’ Spotlight, the agency through which the foundation hired Trudeau. After receiving no response, he says the board decided in May to drop the matter.

“The board of directors did not authorize any member or agent to approach (Moore) or any political person on this matter.”

Moore, however, is standing by his version of events.

In an interview Thursday with radio station CHSJ in Saint John, Moore said the Grace Foundation gave him Buck’s letter.

“I was asked if I would try to exert pressure on Mr. Trudeau,” Moore insisted.

Asked by whom, he said: “Asked by members of the Grace Foundation.”

He declined to comment on Webster’s statement, saying he had not yet seen it.

Since the Buck’s letter surfaced, it has emerged that at least one board member has strong ties to the Conservative party and is married to a member of Moore’s riding executive.

The Conservatives have used the Grace Foundation’s request for a refund to turn the spotlight on the fact that Trudeau continued to collect fees on the public speaking circuit after becoming an MP in 2008.

Trudeau has voluntarily disclosed that he’s earned more than $1.3 million on the circuit since 2006, including $277,000 from 17 groups since he was first elected. Some of those groups are charities and non-profit entities such as school boards, municipalities and universities.

Trudeau, who stopped moonlighting as a paid public speaker last spring, announced on Sunday that he will give back the money to any of those 17 groups who feel they didn’t get their money’s worth.

But the debate has continued to rage, with Conservatives and New Democrats blasting Trudeau for accepting money from charitable organizations. They’ve argued that public speaking is part of an MPs’ job.

Thursday’s statement from the Grace Foundation concludes by expressing hope that “our correspondence this week with Mr. Trudeau will be helpful in clarifying the misunderstanding between Mr. Trudeau and ourselves.”

Webster declined further comment. Trudeau spokesperson Kate Monfette did not respond to question about the nature of that correspondence. She did say that the foundation’s statement does not change Trudeau’s intention of returning the speaking fee to any group that wants it.

Ironically, the Grace Foundation’s website still includes “news” posted a few days after the June 2012 inaugural fundraiser headlined by Trudeau.

“Guest speaker Justin Trudeau spoke passionately about our roles and responsibilities as Canadians in the global community, challenging each individual to consider his or her contribution toward positive change,” the posting says.

“Audience members agree it was an evening to remember.”