Welcome to Camp In and Out, as it has now been christened by one of my colleagues, where we are currently grumpily assembling in our now established spots in media row. There’s a sense of excitement, since there’s a very good chance that the witnesses scheduled for this morning will actually show up. In fact, I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that they appear to have done just that: a bevy of solemn-suited executives is settling in at the table, and the show is, apparently, going to go on.
Nobody else seems to share my belief that Patrick Muttart will be here this afternoon, by the way, but it remains intact. I have faith.
One of the witnesses – Andrew Kumpf, we think, the vp of Retail Media, has brought his lawyer: Malcolm Ruby.
Not present, by the looks of things, is Jean Lecours, the official agent for parliamentary secretary Jacques Gourde, and the only one of this morning’s witnesses who was issued (but not necessarily served, as the Conservatives would want me to point out) a summons to appear.
And – we’re off! Paul Szabo reads the usual opening spiel, and Gary Goodyear moves the usual point of order – a metapoint of metaorder over how the chair recognizes opposition members’ points, but not the government, and plays favourites, and likes them better than him, and waah waah waah. He also likes to work the words “real court of law” into his complaints whenever possible.
Oh, and he also referred to his colleagues on the other side of the table as “the jury.” Szabo reminds him that the Conservative track record isn’t so great, as far as raising legitimate points of order, so he’s not going to stop a witness in mid-sentence every time the government side starts to grouse.
And the first challenge of the chair of the day. Yesterday, there wasn’t a single one, but on Monday, I believe there were four total by the end of the day. The chair is sustained, of course. The Conservatives pretend to look surprised, but right as Szbao tries to move to questions, Pierre Lemieux moves – yes, another point of order. Pat Martin snarls that he should put it in writing, but the chair humours him, until he realizes it’s the same point of order wearing a different hat.
Pierre Lemieux just doesn’t see how the chair can know that a point of order isn’t urgent (or, likely, a point of order at all) until he hears it. You know, by this point, I think we can all hazard a pretty good guess.
Finally, the sideshow ends, briefly, and the chair fills everyone in on the absent Jean Lecours, who apparently told the clerk that neither he nor his former candidate, Jacques Gourde, would appear. Somehow, we all manage to conceal our collective shock.
And now, the witnesses who are actually here – the Retail Media gaggle. They’ve been sworn in, and they’re ready to go – and would like to make opening statements as well. After some kvetching from the government side, the committee agrees.
One more thing: because of sub judice issues with Retail Media — I’m not actually sure which ones — there may be some limits on the questions they will answer.
David Campbell is the first to speak – at the time of the election, he was president of RMI, and he says that all three look forward to explaining their role in placing ads for the Conservative Party. “Our relationship with the Conservative Party is purely a business relationship,” he states, which will come as a disappointment to poor Doug Lowry.
“We insisted on coordinating candidate billings from the party,” he says, for two reasons: the media outlets require cash upfront, and billing dozens of candidates would have been “an administrative nightmare.”
It was the party that specified the budgets, and how the clients chose to divide the cost of the buy “was not up to us” and had nothing to do with RMI.
They don’t claim to be experts in the Canada Elections Act — that’s the responsibility of the client — but they did seek, and receive assurances that the
And onto the allegedly “altered” invoice — which, Campbell says, was in the format that the firm used, but with the identical amount, plus the GST. He says that he provided the witness with examples, and asks if the members have seen them. This, predictably, sends the Tories into a tizzy — why haven’t they seen these documents? Well, because the chair says he wanted to make sure that the Bloc was okay with the english-only formats, and then Goodyear goes off on a rant about withholding evidence, and “completely illegitimate forum.” The documents in question are being handed out as we speak, and Campbell tells the committee that actually, the chair just got them a few minutes ago.
Okay, back to the testimony — David Campbell walks the committee through the non-withheld documents, and says that it appears the party photocopied the documents to include just the information relevant to the riding in question.
He says that the firm also wrote to the media to confirm that, while the invoices may have been copies, the dollar value was accurate.
With that, it’s time for questions, and Karen Redman gets things started by quizzing Kumpf about his dealings with the party, based on his statements to Elections Canada. Was it true that he normally dealt with Patrick Muttart (who will appear!), Susan Kehoe and Michael Donison?
Tweeeet! David Tilson is angrily concerned that the question may prejudice litigation ongoing in a different proceeding – I think he means the judicial review, but maybe he’s thinking of something else – but the chair assures him that he’s discussed the issue with the law clerk, as well as the lawyer for the witnesses, and chides him for trying to plead privilege on behalf of RMI.
And the second challenge of the chair of the day. Can we beat Monday’s record? Let’s see!
Chair sustained. You know, as far as I can tell, it doesn’t matter whether the numbers in the photocopied invoices were accurate or not; it’s still a no-no to submit a non-genuine invoice to Elections Canada.
After the chair implores members to stop moving ridiculous points of order, although he puts it slightly more politely, Karen Redman gets to go ahead with her question, and Kumpf confirms that he did, and also that there was no contact between RMI and the candidates.
David Tilson fights for the right to bring a point of order whenever he wants. He’s a warrior for freedom! Whenever a point of order cries out to be moved, he’s there.
Szabo reminds Tilson that RMI actually has a lawyer present — he can handle any such issues; it doesn’t fall to David Tilson to play Matlock for the witnesses. Especially since the lawyer in question seems to be fine with the questions thus far.
Now he and Tilson are yelling competing Standing Orderses at each other, and Carole Lavallee just snapped. She scampers up to the front to talk to the clerk, and David Tilson demonstrates the meaning of the word “bellicose” by trying to take over the meeting — “while we’re waiting,” he suggests before being shouted down by the combined opposition forces. Who may seize control of the committee themselves if the Conservatives keep interrupting the proceedings.
Forty minutes into the meeting, and one member has been able to ask approximately one and a half questions.
And another challenge to the chair – number three, if you’re counting, and I am.
The chair is sustained – I typed that before the vote had even been taken, and may have to make a macro by the end of the day – and Szabo pleads with the committee to show some respect for the witnesses, and cease and desist raising points of order in the middle of an answer.
Karen Redman repeats her question, which we’ve all forgotten by this point – oh, it was about whether there were any contracts between RMI and the candidates, which there were not. Campbell says he’s happy to answer the question – they didn’t have, nor want any contracts with the candidates.
Retail Media also had to pay for the ads immediately, so it had money for those buys, and received two payments from the party, in December and January.
Who selected the individual ridings, asks Redman – Mike Donison – “after his discussions with the official agents” – but before December 9th.
Redman wonders when the list of ridings was finalized: mid-December, says Kumpf.
In response to her next question, Campbell says that there were two conference calls with the party in December, in which the firm “sought and received” confirmation that the expenses were within the limit. But not Elections Canada, Redman asks. Campbell admits his memory is a bit fuzzy, but doesn’t think so.
Carole Lavallee wonders if the Conservative Party is still a client – yes, they are, and Retail Media plans to work with them during the next campaign. Oh, and the contact person for the party right now is still Patrick Muttart.
Lavallee points to an email Campbell sent in mid-December, in which he wondered whether they might not want to contact the broadcast adjudicator on an issue related to the buys – could they represent both the party and the candidates, I think – as well as “transferring” between clients – but was told that it would be better not to know the answer.
Campbell explains that he was told to wait for the party officials to decide – and they did. Guess what? It was Perfectly Legal, according to those party officials.
“We relied on the client to be aware of the nuances of the regulations,” says Campbell.
So, how’s that going, do you think?
Pat Martin is up now, and he has more questions – always more questions! – about those fateful days in early December. With the obligatory reference to “Enron-style off-the-books accounting,” he quizzes the witnesses over whether it seemed as though the party was trying to dodge the limits, rather than “legally maximize advertising expenses”, which is how Campbell phrased it in his email.
The same email, Campbell notes, points out that the company had to receive money from the party. “Nobody around this table thinks Retail Media did anything wrong,” Martin assures him.
Marilyn Dixon explains that there were two sets of invoices – non-Quebec, and Quebec – with candidate names on the forms used in Quebec, but not the rest of the country. Why was that, wonders Martin, and the answer plunges us into the intricacies of ad-buying, which is actually interesting, but much of it is incidental to the subject at hand.
Maybe, if there’s time, the committee can get a crash course from Patrick Muttart.
Finally, the Conservatives have ten whole minutes to talk, and Mike Wallace gets Kumpf to explain the process of buying ads before demonstrating that he, too, needs talking points by referring to a “sworn affidavit” by the witness, to general puzzlement, when he actually meant the email that was included in the application for the search warrant.
What the — okay, I have no idea why we need to know this, but Wallace just gave Campbell an opening to discuss the entire scope of Retail Media’s businsess. Earned media via committee testimony – it’s the new viral meme!
Dean del Mastro – who is a business guy himself, he’d like us all to recall – knows all about buying ads, and transferring blocks of time, and all that stuff which is fascinating, particularly in the used car business. Did you know that the Elections Act doesn’t apply to that at all? It’s surprising but true!
Marcel Proulx asks whether the witnesses have spoken with the party about today’s appearance, two of the three say no, and Kumpf botes that he did speak with – guess who! Patrick Muttart, that’s who – after last month’s hearings, at which point he – Muttart – mentioned that they may be called to appear.
Marilyn Dixon once again tries to explain those mysterious invoices – some for Quebec, some for non-Quebec – to Marcel Proulx. She explains that the invoice for Trinity Spadina – which was submitted to Elections Canada – was prepared by the firm, but never given to the Conservative Party; Retail Media only provided a summary invoice.
How did it get into Elections Canada’s hands, wonders Proulx, as do we all, really, since he runs out of time before she can explain how that happened.
And now, a word – a lot of words, in fact – from Gary Goodyear, who would like to talk about the Liberals. Who could have foretold such a bizarre turn of events? Specifically, he’d like to talk about Dominic Leblanc, and all sorts of evidence that was found irrelevant when the parties to the judicial review attempted to file it in court, but about which we get to hear in painful detail. I also have no idea what this has to do with Retail Media, and from the looks on their faces, neither do they.
He finishes off by asking why the witnesses think that Elections Canada isn’t looking into *those* expenses, and notes sarcastically that he’s run out of time, so they can’t actually answer.
The chair, however, allows them to do so, albeit briefly, and Campbell repeats that they aren’t experts in election law.
Oh, this is going to go well – Szabo has decided to exercise his perfectly legitimate right to question the witnesses.
Dean del Mastro challenges the chair’s question – his not-yet-asked question – on the basis of relevance, and Szabo rules his own question relevant. He then has to bellow over Del Mastro’s next point of order, all in an effort to establish that the invoice that the agents would have filed would not, in fact, be valid for an election return.
“We had no idea what they were going to do with it,” Dixon explains. It was up to the client.
Del Mastro accuses Szabo of trying to sneak something onto the record that is “utterly irrelevant”, and then delivers a fascinating monologue on expenses, and the submitting thereof, and how he doesn’t include his credit card number or certain purchases, like – his mortgage? Really?
Anyway, he is very, very offended by the suggestion that – well, he won’t say what, exactly, he thinks Szabo is suggesting, but it is deeply offensive.
Carole Lavallee wants to know more about the corporate structure of RMI and GroupM Media.
Eventually Szabo nudges her back to the issue, and she gets to the point: Did the firm consult legal counsel when they had doubts about the ad buys? No, apparently – they accepted the word of the clients – the Conservative Party and, presumably, the official agents. “We had no reason to doubt the expertise, or the advice we were given.”
“You weren’t asking any questions,” Lavallee challenges Campbell, but he repeats that they obtained assurances that it was legal.
Somehow, this line of questioning seems to have intrigued David Tilson, who wants to know if any of the various subsidiaries and sibling companies to Retail Media have provided services to the NDP or the Liberals or the Bloc. Which means, Tilson muses, that he – Campbell – doesn’t know whether those parties are involved in “similar” practices? That is, in fact, the case according to Campbell.
Well, that’s proof enough for me.
Hey, Conservative Research Group, if you’re reading this blog: Maybe you could google up the names of those ad agencies of record for the other parties, so that David Tilson doesn’t have to ask Retail Media, and make them feel bad for not being able to remember the names. If you’re not busy, that is. I know there are many realities to be checked.
Pat Martin raises the spectre of the sponsorship scandal briefly, but moves onto query the witnesses about the “hugely disproportionate amounts” that were billed to the various ridings in, for instance, Toronto? How is that fair market value to charge such different prices for the same media buys?
Campbell says that it was the party that set the numbers for the master invoice – the one that was apparently used to produce the copies that were sent to official agents. Which means that Retail Media had nothing to do with calculating the totals, apparently – they just plunked in the numbers that the Conservatives provided to them.
“So you just did what the party told you?” Martin asks. “Were you unwilling dupes of the party?” That was offside, according to the chair, who does go on to ask some questions of his own on these mysteriously reproducing invoices.
That sends the Conservatives into conniptions; the chair has no expertise, Goodyear insists, in the differences between “hard” and “soft” invoices. Well, as a former accountant, he sort of does – as much as Dean del Mastro, anyway.
Kumpf tries his hand at explaining another email from Denison to himself, in which they discuss costs versus contributions, which leaves me hopelessly lost, but causes a ripple of excited whispers amongst those in the room who have more advanced accounting skills.
Leblanc is taking a tougher tone with the witnesses – he challenges Dixon on her statements to Elections Canada, versus what she is telling the committee now, and she explains that the original press reports had “mischaracterized” her position. Although I’m not sure if that puts the whole “altered” invoice controversy to bed, given what we’ve heard today
Now, Pierre Lemieux will spend his five allotted minutes delivering talking points on how Elections Canada can’t tell him what ads to run in their riding, or dictate the content: what matters, he avers, is the tagline. No, actually. What matters is who paid for it. Not content, not taglines, nothing else.
You know, Pierre Lemieux does bear a haunting resemblance to Russ Hiebert – who, in turn, is like a younger version of Maurice Vellacott. It’s nice that the Conservatives have an heir and a spare.
And now, Charlie Hubbard will play us out with his homespun wisdom and genuine curiousity. Who was on the conference call? Patrick Muttart, Doug Finley, Mike Donison – and the counsel for the party, one Paul Lepsoe.
Hilariously, Tilson now tries to argue solicitor/client privilege on behalf of a solicitor, and a client, who aren’t actually present, but Szabo shuts him down pretty quickly.
For the first time today, Campbell expresses discomfort over a question – for legal reasons that is – and demurs Hubbard’s query on the specifics of the arrangement with the party.
Hubbard notes that the official agents who appeared yesterday told the committee that they had no contact with Retail Media Inc. – thank you, Doug Lowry – and received invoices from the party, not the firm. Is this fraud, he wonders. Does the committee need a special forensic investigation to determine the provenance of these documents?
Oh, Dean del Mastro didn’t like that at all.
Dean del Mastro goes off on a tear about his expenses – *again* – and how he will likely claim his hotel costs for this week, and will submit a copy of the bill to back that up, which is perfectly legal.
Yes, but what wouldn’t be quite as perfectly legal would be to photocopy that bill, and pass the copies out to his colleagues, so they could all file for their expenses. Or “adjust” the amount by adding the GST by hand.
Carole Lavallee asks again whether the witnesses were contacted by the party before testifying today, and once again, all three deny that’s the case.
Somehow, we’ve just gotten sucked into an en masse aside on whether the chair was right to allow an extra round of questioning, thereby going over the deadline.
Carole Lavallee suggests that they would have finished in plenty of time had the Conservatives not attempted to hijack the meeting earlier in the day. “They’re acting like clowns so they won’t be perceived as thieves, and the line of the day goes to Voice of Sanity again.
Ooh. She’s also onto something good – it was the lawyer for Retail Media – Ruby, who is present – who seems to have advised the firm members not to speak to anyone from the party.
Brief moment of levity – Lavallee asks whether Ruby told the witnesses to appear today, which is privileged, although it would be nice if the Conservatives would allow the witnesses to assert it, rather than do it for them.
“It’s privileged,” confirms Campbell. “But we’re here.”
Okay, at this point, I’ll admit that it doesn’t take much to crack up the media room, but in our defence, it’s been a very long morning.
Marcel Proulx, on the other hand, is still fresh as a daisy, and asks who the “Mike”
who made the following comment via email, on the subject of contacting the broadcasting adjudicator: “We may not want anyone talking to them.” To nobody’s surprise, it was Mike Donison.
More one-last-things from Marcel Proulx, including one I was wondering about earlier: how was it that the list of ridings was finalized before some even had candidates? Because it was all about the ridings, Campbell says.
Finally, he confronts Kumpf with an apparent contradiction between a letter he sent, and testimony earlier today: Did he, or did he not have any relationship with the candidates? Kumpf insists he did not – all transactions had to go through the party.
And with that, we’re done until 2pm, when
Patrick Muttart will appear, like a ray of sunshine, and guide us benevolently truthwards.
Or something like that.