The U.S. manufacturer set to win the sole-source fighter jet deal had more recorded face time with senior federal officials than its rivals, raising questions about how level the playing field really was in the run-up to this week’s announcement.
The federal lobbyist registry indicates that Chicago-based Boeing, which will provide 18 Super Hornet jets to the air force, had roughly seven times as many official meetings with federal staff since the beginning of the year as rival Lockheed Martin, the maker of the F-35.
The breadth and scope of the access are also extraordinary.
Lobbyists representing Boeing Operations International and Boeing Global Sales met 23 times with federal officials, including with Defence, Industry, Public Services and Procurement and even senior staff in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office.
Lockheed Martin, based in Bethesda, Md., the world’s largest defence contractor, had only three recorded meetings, according to the registry.
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A spokesman for Boeing was unable to say how many of meetings revolved around the fighter jet decision, but noted the company has wide-ranging business with the federal government and a number of projects on the go, including the recent delivery of industrial benefits under the C-17 heavy lift transport program.
“We regularly meet with Canadian government officials as part of the normal course of business,” said Scott Day, Boeing’s international vice-president of communications, who noted the company fielded questions from Canadian officials last summer following a survey of all potential bidders.
Officials at Lockheed Martin did not return messages.
Was there another solution?
But NDP defence critic Randall Garrison says the number of recorded meetings raises questions about whether the Liberals had anything else in mind other than an “interim” sole-source purchase.
It also makes him wonder even more about the kind of open competition the Liberals are planning to run over the next five years.
“They stalled for a year and it looks like they intend to sole-source jets, just like the Conservatives did,” he said. “The Liberals are behaving like the Conservatives. The Conservatives had a favourite jet. Now the Liberals have a favourite jet.”
Senior federal officials, who are close to the file but asked for anonymity, argued not to read too much into the lobbyist registry, saying it does not capture the full picture.
The officials, who would only speak on background, said there were instances when senior aerospace executives, who are not registered lobbyists, sought and obtained meetings.
One of those times was last summer, according to documents obtained by CBC News under Access to Information legislation.
Ministerial face time
All five potential competitors for the replacement of the air force’s CF-18s managed to meet with Public Services and Procurement Minister Judy Foote at the Farnborough International Airshow in Britain last July.
She rarely met with defence contractors interested in specific programs, according to her staff.
In fact, the documents show her officials recommended she avoid meeting directly with competitors and focus on talking with industry groups.
But they made an exception for the annual air show, considered one of the premier aerospace events in the world.
According to a July 7, 2016, memo, officials went out of their way to encourage Foote to take a meeting requested by Lockheed Martin Canada’s chief executive and an international vice-president, both of whom were not registered lobbyists.
Foote may not have been taking meetings about the fighter replacement, but public service and procurement documents show her officials met three times with representatives of Boeing, once with Lockheed Martin and once with Dassault, the French aircraft maker that hopes to sell its Rafale jet to Canada.
The federal registry shows lobbyists for Dassault met eight times in total with federal officials, most of the time at National Defence.
Senior executives of both Lockheed Martin and Boeing sought meetings with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan during the annual aerospace summit a few weeks ago, prior to cabinet’s approval of the plan.
But officials say they were turned down because of the proximity to the decision. Instead, they were offered sessions with senior officials and only Boeing seized the opportunity.
Regardless of who initiated the meetings, Garrison said he believes the process has now been tilted in favour of Boeing.
“When you buy a third of your fleet from one manufacturer, you no longer have a level playing field for any further competition,” he said. “I think that’s quite clear.”