Speakers’ Spotlight threatened after being caught up in WE affair: co-founder
Speakers' Spotlight co-founder says his company has been harassed and its employees intimidated and threatened since August
OTTAWA — A small business that used to book speaking engagements for Justin Trudeau and his family has been caught in the partisan crossfire of the WE Charity affair.
Martin Perelmuter, who co-founded Speakers’ Spotlight 25 years ago with his wife, Farah, says his company has been harassed and its employees intimidated and threatened since August.
That’s when Conservative MPs began publicly calling on the company to disclose speaking fees earned over the past 12 years by the prime minister, his wife, mother and brother — even though that would have contravened privacy laws.
In one Facebook post, which is still online, deputy Conservative leader Candice Bergen provided the company’s toll-free phone number and urged people to call to press the point.
Ever since, Perelmuter said Dec. 7, his company has faced harassment, personal threats and a social media campaign he described as designed to discredit him and his wife and damage the reputation of their company, which was already struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As a leader of a small company, I feel that my first obligation is to ensure the physical, emotional and mental health, safety and well-being of our employees,” Perelmuter told the House of Commons ethics committee.
“For the first time in my 25-year career, I was in a situation where I didn’t feel that I could properly protect everyone from what was going on. We had to get the police involved. It was a really nasty situation.”
Perelmuter said one individual who responded to the Conservative call posted on Facebook his wife’s photo and private cellphone number, along with a rant “calling her disgusting and derogatory things.”
“And so her phone started ringing day and night with all kinds of people calling. It was really unsettling.”
His voice breaking, Perelmuter said his wife “was in fear of her own personal safety for a while, she didn’t want to leave the house.”
Some of their 27 employees, particularly young women on staff, were also concerned about their safety, he said.
Perelmuter said he understands politics is “a tough business” but he said his company is not partisan and has been unfairly caught in the crossfire. He noted that the company had only a “tangential” connection to the WE affair and had nothing to do with the student services grant at the heart of the controversy.
“It’s something that I never thought we would have to deal with. We’re not in a controversial type of business.”
The controversy stems from the government’s decision in June to give WE Charity a $43.5-million contract to manage the student grant program, despite the fact that Trudeau and various family members had spoken at numerous WE events in the past. WE later withdrew from the contract and the program was eventually cancelled.
As part of its investigation into the affair, the ethics committee asked Speakers’ Spotlight to turn over documents related to any fees earned by Trudeau and his family members for speaking engagements over the past 12 years.
The company asked for an extension until Aug. 19 to produce the documents but, one day before the deadline, Trudeau prorogued Parliament. That put an end to the committee, whose clerk informed Perelmuter that he no longer had to submit the documents.
However, Conservative MP Michael Barrett sent the company a letter the following week — which he released to the media before Perelmuter said he had a chance to read it — asking it to “do the right thing” and turn over the documents directly to members of the then-disbanded committee.
Perelmuter said the company’s legal counsel informed him that releasing the documents in that manner, without an order from the committee, would violate privacy laws. She was upset that a member of Parliament would ask the company to break the law, he told the committee.
Bergen’s Facebook post came shortly after Barrett publicly released his letter.
By making the request public, Perelmuter said he “definitely felt like we were being intimidated” by Barrett.
“It was frankly quite shocking to me, to be completely honest,” he said, adding that launching a lawsuit against Conservative MPs “has certainly crossed my mind.”
Barrett participated in a committee hearing but did not address the matter. He did ask Perelmuter several questions about some specific speaking engagements.
“I am extremely disappointed and shocked, but maybe not surprised, that Mr. Barrett was present here and that he did not use his time to offer a complete apology for his actions,” said Liberal MP Brenda Shanahan.
She and other Liberal members of the committee apologized to Perelmuter for what occurred, as did NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus.
The chair of the committee, Conservative MP David Sweet, concluded the meeting by offering a “sincere apology” on behalf of the committee “for any of the unintended consequences that came from any actions of the committee members in regards to the obligations of our office.”
Once the committee was reconstituted in September, it sent a narrower request to Speakers’ Spotlight for records of the speaking fees earned by Trudeau and his wife. The company complied with that request and those records have been in the hands of committee members for about a week.