Tories overrule officials to fund project of Baird's 'dear friend'

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Rabbi Chaim Mendelsohn accompanies Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird during his visit to Israel on Jan. 31, 2012. (Mati Milstein/Mati Milstein for The Globe and Mail)

The Conservative government overruled federal bureaucrats and gave $1-million to a social hall project submitted by an Ottawa rabbi with close ties to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

After speaking to Mr. Baird, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley personally approved the project even though her officials determined it did not meet the criteria for a federal program aimed at making facilities wheelchair accessible.

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The funding request for the expansion of a Jewish community centre known as a Chabad was submitted by Rabbi Chaim Mendelsohn of the Canadian Federation of Chabad Lubavitch, who serves as the Canadian face of the international Hasidic outreach movement.

Ministers can make such decisions because they are ultimately responsible for spending in their department.

Mr. Baird acknowledges discussing the proposal with Ms. Finley.

“As the MP for Ottawa West-Nepean, he was happy to lend Rabbi Mendelsohn his support,” said Mr. Baird’s spokesman. “Determinations are then made by the department.”

The Ottawa-based rabbi recently joined Mr. Baird on a tour of Israel. During that January visit, Mr. Baird repeatedly joked in his speeches that while he was not Jewish, he did have a rabbi.

The money for the project came from the Enabling Accessibility Fund, a short-term program that offered federal grants for projects that “improve accessibility and enable Canadians, regardless of physical ability, to participate in and contribute to their communities and the economy.”

Ms. Finley’s department received 355 applications by the deadline of Jan. 13, 2011. Public servants graded submissions against the program’s criteria and whittled the list down to 25 that received at least 82 out of a possible 100 points.

Rabbi Mendelsohn submitted a proposal on behalf of his Ottawa-based national organization to expand the Chabad in Markham. The project promises a new fully accessible social hall, kitchen, classrooms and gym, and programs for the disabled.

A briefing note to Ms. Finley from Human Resources officials said the internal federal assessment found “a number of weaknesses” with the proposal and gave it 53 out of 100.

“Given that the cut-off score was 82/100, this project was not one of the 25 sent for external evaluation,” states the Aug. 26, 2011, memo obtained by The Globe and Mail under Access to Information.

The memo states that four projects were approved. “At the time, you also requested that one additional project, the Canadian Federation of Chabad Lubavitch, be assessed by an external evaluator and that you be informed of the result.” That second review based on different criteria gave the project a score of 51/80.

The memo said the external evaluator “considered it could be funded with reservation,” citing concerns over building standards, cost estimates and the group’s cash flow.

The minister decided to include the project with the other four to qualify for a share of the nearly $12-million fund.

The project is in Environment Minister Peter Kent’s riding of Thornhill. Mr. Kent’s office said the Minister did not intervene in the application. A photo of Mr. Kent announcing the funding last October appears on the Chabad of Markham website.

Rabbi Mendelsohn runs the national umbrella organization of Chabad from Ottawa’s Chabad of Centrepointe, which received $ 85,357 in charitable donations in 2010. The Chabad of Markham is also a registered charity, with assets of $1.8-million and $753,494 in charitable donations for 2011.

The international Chabad-Lubavitch movement started in Russia 250 years ago and is now headquartered in Brooklyn, N.Y. Its website says its global work force across 3,300 institutions is “dedicated to the welfare of the Jewish people worldwide.”

A spokesperson for Ms. Finley said the project was approved based on the results of the external review.

“The minister is confident that this project demonstrated value for money and will improve community-based accessibility for Canadians with disabilities,” Alyson Queen said.

In an interview, Rabbi Mendelsohn said he did not lobby politicians. He described Mr. Baird as “a very dear friend” and said he was “very touched” to hear that he spoke favourably of his organization to Ms. Finley.

Rabbi Mendelsohn said Chabad reaches out to politicians of all stripes. Yet he has clearly developed a close relationship with the Harper government. The homepage of his Ottawa Chabad features a photo of Prime Minister Stephen Harper lighting a menorah, and the rabbi attended a private Chanukah reception at Mr. Harper’s residence. Rabbi Mendelsohn was with the Prime Minister during a 2009 trip to India that included a visit to a Chabad that was targeted in the Mumbai terrorist attacks the year before.

The international website chabad.org features a photo from this year’s Israel trip with a caption that states: “Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird hugs good friend Rabbi Chaim Mendelsohn.”

Rabbi Mendelsohn speculated that ministers may have intervened because Chabad is not well-known outside of the Jewish community, even though its services are open to the broader community.

“I’m not sure how they score such a thing, but my gut would [say]you need a minister who’s elected and takes the time and the effort to be able to find out the stories behind these organizations that may not be as well known to give them a fair shot at getting approved for funding,” he said. “Chabad doesn’t often get approved for large government grants, but they’re very deserving.”