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Government contracting process 'absolutely not' giving value for money: Botler whistleblowers

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The co-founders of a company formerly contracted by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), who raised concerns about the process for doling out government contracts and instigated probes into the ArriveCan app controversy, says the federal government’s contracting process is “absolutely not” giving Canadian taxpayers value for their money.

Ritika Dutt and Amir Morv are the co-founders of Botler AI, a company with an artificial intelligence tool designed to help people dealing with workplace misconduct navigate the system.

They said they were contracted by the CBSA for a pilot project in 2019.

The two raised questions about the government contracting process after noticing issues with a number of companies involved in their project.

“We were just the average taxpayer that was coming into the situation we were seeing,” Dutt told CTV’s Question Period host Vassy Kapelos, in a joint interview with Morv, airing Sunday.

“There's such an egregious violation in the way that these tax dollars are just being expended, and nobody's really looking into ‘are we doing the right thing?’ ‘Is this being expended the correct way?’”

Dutt said the two later learned there were inconsistencies and inaccuracies during the contracting process. For example, elements of her CV had been inflated, portraying a two-month summer internship as a four-year experience, she said.

The ill-fated ArriveCan app was back in the headlines this week after it was revealed that the CEO of Dalian Enterprises, which received $7.9 million for its work on the app, was a government employee.

While Morv and Dutt did not work on the much-maligned border app, they were tangentially connected to three companies that have since been implicated in the ArriveCan controversy: GC Strategies, Dalian Enterprises, and Coradix.

“That’s really, I think, the main impetus behind us coming forward, is that this is something that everybody needs to know about,” Dutt said. “This is all of our hard-earned tax dollars that we're putting into the government with faith that they're going to be expending it correctly.

“Just the way that the processes are right now, they're ripe for being taken advantage of,” she added. “And there's this moral hazard problem going on where there are people that have access to this, and these systems have been implemented in such a way for decades that they're really easy to bypass and circumvent in a way to benefit certain parties.”

According to Morv and Dutt, their concerns about government contracting began with the CBSA, when they were approached about a pilot project to use Botler AI to help employees learn the policies and laws within the government organization.

There was then potential to roll out the tool to the wider public service, they told Kapelos.

They were not initially contacted directly by CBSA, however. Morv recounted that they first heard about the opportunity from a company called GC Strategies, the firm they would later learn had received the first ArriveCan contract, and which has reportedly received 34 government contracts since 2015, worth a total of $59.8 million.

From there, it became a “complicated” web of contracting and sub-contracting involving Botler, GC Strategies, Coradix, and Dalian Enterprises, the last of which is owned by a government employee, Morv said.

Dutt said she and Morv had an inkling the process was not above board “right away,” because they already had experience working with the Department of Justice, and the contracting process was being handled “very differently” through GC Strategies.

“We didn't have something concrete, but I think the really concrete moment for us was when we received an email from GC Strategies showing us a document that had been executed between Dalian, a company we'd never even heard of, and GC Strategies, to implement our Botler solution,” Dutt said. “And Botler wasn't even named on it. It was just myself and (Amir) Morv that had been named personally as consultants.

“At that point, it was just red flags going off all over the place,” she added.

Dutt said the two then started documenting and recording the entire contracting process, including their correspondence with the other players.

They later contacted CBSA directly and filed misconduct report. A few months later, following a second misconduct report filing, they were dismissed and their contract with CBSA was terminated by the agency, Dutt said.

Amid CTV News reporting this week that the CEO of Dalian Enterprises was also a Department of National Defence employee, Treasury Board President and former defence minister Anita Anand said she was “very surprised to hear this news.”

Morv told Kapelos there should “absolutely” be political intervention to reform the government contracting processes and ensure taxpayers are getting better value for money.

“These are decades-old contracting vehicles that have not been really reviewed,” Morv said. “I think now that this issue is in the public, and now that everybody's looking into this, I think the ministers have the power to really start change.

“And I think change is really necessary,” he added.

Testifying before a parliamentary committee last month, two former CBSA employees denied any misconduct allegations related to the awarding of contracts to develop the ArriveCan app.

With files from CTV News’ Rachel Hanes and Mike Le Couteur, and CTVNews.ca’s Senior Digital Parliamentary Reporter Rachel Aiello

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