B.C. conflict watchdog to review political fundraising events

The B.C. govern. File Photo

VICTORIA – British Columbia’s conflict of interest commissioner says he will review two complaints that exclusive, high-priced fundraising events promising access to political leaders are breaches of a provincial law.

Paul Fraser said in a letter that he plans to issue one opinion after reviewing the complaints about the practice of B.C. politicians participating in fundraising events.

New Democrat MLA David Eby and Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher filed separate complaints following media reports that Premier Christy Clark participates in fundraising events where people pay thousands of dollars for exclusive access to her.

READ MORE: Christy Clark rejects calls for spending reforms

“If you are behind closed doors with a small group and it’s a high price, you’re selling access to yourself and you’re getting a benefit from the money raised because it’s going to be used for your re-election campaign, and that’s a violation clearly of the prohibition on accepting gifts and other benefits,” Conacher said Thursday in an interview from Ottawa.

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“We’re not saying all fundraising events are illegal, just the ones that are exclusive, behind closed doors, where the list of invitees is not disclosed,” he said. “If you are holding a big public event, with a low price, where anyone can buy a ticket and you give a speech and then you leave — maybe shake a few hands, that’s it — you are not selling access to yourself.”

Fraser responded to Conacher’s request this week with a letter stating he will issue one opinion on the matter.

“Mr. Eby’s request is also related to the practice of members participating in ‘exclusive’ fundraising events and whether such activities are compatible with members’ obligations under the act,” stated Fraser’s letter. “Given that both requests relate to the same subject matter, I expect that the concerns you raise may be addressed in the opinion issued in response to Mr. Eby’s request.”

Eby’s April 1 letter to Fraser stated the commissioner must draw a line when it comes to fundraisers and the premier selling access.

“Under B.C.’s conflict of interest legislation, you have the power to apply a conflict of interest ‘sniff test,’ described as the opinion of a reasonable person reasonably informed of the facts about whether there is a conflict or the reasonable perception of a conflict,” Eby’s letter stated.

Conacher’s letter to the commissioner alleges the private events are breaches of conflict guidelines because they result in politicians receiving an illegal gift.

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“Democracy Watch is not claiming that all fundraising events are illegal, just high-priced, exclusive events where politicians sell access to themselves in return for a donation,” the letter stated.

Fraser’s office would only confirm that it received a request from Eby to investigate a breach and said it would have no further comment.

Clark said Wednesday she attends fundraising events organized by the Liberal party, but doesn’t ask how much people pay to be there.

She said B.C.’s laws governing party donations and election spending limits are sufficient, though Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has announced plans to reform election finance legislation and end private fundraisers.

Opposition NDP Leader John Horgan said the optics surrounding exclusive fundraising events are terrible, but, like Clark, he participates in them because they have not been ruled illegal and he doesn’t want to give the Liberals a fundraising advantage.

Elections BC financial statements released this week showed Clark’s Liberal party received almost $10 million in political contributions last year, while the New Democrats pulled in $3 million.

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