The chief executive officer of a U.S. company that sells cannabis technology attended a Liberal fundraiser featuring Justin Trudeau earlier this month in Toronto and later said in a news release that the Prime Minister encouraged him to make Canada a testing ground for using artificial intelligence to tailor medical marijuana products.
Ian Jenkins, the head of Frelii Inc., received a $1,600 ticket from a Liberal donor to accompany him to an April 5 party fundraiser with Mr. Trudeau even though he is American. Only Canadian citizens and permanent residents are allowed to donate to federal political parties.
“This was our first opportunity to meet with the Prime Minister,” Mr. Jenkins said in an April 15 Frelii news release that described a conversation with Mr. Trudeau about using the company’s artificial intelligence in Canada to design medical cannabis products.
“Mr. Trudeau said he was encouraged that Frelii was going to deploy its technology [in Canada] and opened the door for introductions to the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Navdeep Bains,” Mr. Jenkins was quoted as saying.
The U.S. company tweeted pictures of Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Trudeau from the April 5 event, including one where the two are engaged in conversation.
After being contacted by The Globe and Mail on Tuesday, spokespersons for the Liberal Party and Frelii denied any such discussion took place.
“The company news release that you reference is inaccurate, and no such meeting took place aside from a very brief interaction on the part of greeting everyone at the event,” Liberal Party communications director Braeden Caley told The Globe in a statement.
Tim Rush, who works at a company that handles public relations for Frelii, said that, in retrospect, he thinks the company’s news release overstated the extent of Mr. Jenkins’ discussion with the Prime Minister.
“Basically it was: ‘Hey, they met Justin Trudeau’ – write a press release about it. It was a very, very informal meeting. There wasn’t anything really substantial that was discussed or anything,” Mr. Rush said in an interview.
“This press release was probably too, uh, jump-the-gun. Because Frelii hopes to … they’re not doing anything in Canada right now. It was just a chance to go to a dinner and meet some people and that is all there was to it,” he added.
Asked why the news release claimed the Prime Minister opened the door for Mr. Jenkins to talk to the Innovation Minister about Frelii coming to Canada, Mr. Rush said: "That was very probably inappropriate language at this point. It was probably just a discussion: ‘Hey, you should talk to this person – that is the right person to talk to in the Canadian government.’ Because he works with companies.”
The Liberal Party’s Mr. Caley said Mr. Jenkins did not buy a ticket for the event but came as a guest of a donor, who Mr. Rush identified as a Canadian named Sandy Uppal. Mr. Uppal, who is described on his LinkedIn profile as a partner in a Mississauga financial consulting company, would not discuss why he bought the ticket for Mr. Jenkins.
“The individual that you mentioned [Mr. Jenkins] did not make any donations to the Liberal Party of Canada, but attended the fundraising event after having an extra ticket purchased by another attendee,” Mr. Caley said. He added that the party became aware of Mr. Jenkins’s attendance shortly after the event and refunded the money paid for the tickets.
Conservative ethics critic Peter Kent said the presence of the U.S. CEO at a Trudeau fundraiser is highly questionable.
“Obviously, the sunny ways in the bright light of day has prompted the denials and the reimbursement,” Mr. Kent said. “To the average Canadian, the original account by the individual who attended has to be recognized as face value at least, and the reimbursement and the denial is obviously in response to questions about the original statement."
Frelii is a medical technology company that uses artificial intelligence and genomic analysis to customize the use of medical cannabis products for patients.
The Liberal government enacted legislation that took effect at the beginning of 2019 aimed at making political fundraisers more transparent – in the interests of avoiding “cash-for-access” lobbying for federal favours.
Those rules require parties to disclose fundraising events to Elections Canada, which then publicly posts the details of where and when they will be held, followed later by a report on how much the party collected. The rules apply to fundraisers attended by ministers, party leaders or leadership candidates.
The legislation was in response to stories in The Globe and Mail in 2016 and 2017 that said Mr. Trudeau and senior cabinet members were raising millions of dollars through private fundraisers with tickets as high as $1,500 that gave donors access to his cabinet outside of the glare of public scrutiny.
The annual limit for contributions to registered political parties is now $1,600.
The Liberal Party also adopted new rules, which state that “there should be no preferential access to government, or appearance of preferential access, accorded to individuals or organizations because they have made financial contributions to politicians and political parties.”
The party also committed to review the guest list for all fundraising events to determine whether any are registered lobbyists with active files associated with the relevant department, “and, if necessary, take steps so that the individual does not attend the event.”