Among the guests at one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent fundraisers – colloquially referred to as “cash-for-access” events – was a supporter who subsequently received a federal appointment and another man who bought a ticket for the sole purpose of speaking to Trudeau about legislation currently in Parliament.
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His reason for going to the Montreal event on May 4 was to make sure the prime minister heard his concerns about a Senate bill he says infringes not only on his ability to ensure the success of his six-year-old business but also on the constitutional rights of all Canadians.
“Cash for access was the furthest thing from my mind that day. I saw an open door and I walked through it – and I’ll walk through every open door I see,” Edwards, who is not a registered lobbyist, said in a recent interview with Global News.
Also among the guests at the fundraiser that evening at Montreal’s Fine Arts Museum was Jonathan Goldbloom, a Liberal donor who sought the federal nomination for a Montreal-area riding in the last election and was recently appointed to the Via Rail board of directors.
Goldbloom donated more than $18,000 to the federal party, riding associations and to himself as a candidate over the past decade, according to public records with Elections Canada.
In an email to Global News, he confirmed he was at the May 4 fundraiser, but didn’t answer questions asking how much he’d paid for his ticket and whether he discussed the Via position with the prime minister while at the event.
Edwards, the business owner, said he paid $250, the highest donation amount required to attend, according to the Liberal report on the event.
“I took $250 out of my own pocket to accomplish what I needed to accomplish,” he said during a telephone interview from his office in Quebec.
Both scenarios reveal the fundamental problems with this method of fundraising, said Conservative MP John Brassard.
“People are paying to get face time with the prime minister,” he said in a telephone interview from his Ontario riding. “You get preferential treatment with the prime minister if you can pay for it and are OK with your money going into the Liberal coffers.”
Edwards said he saw the $250 price tag as little more than the cost of getting his message on legislation to the prime minister.
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When he saw the prime minister shaking hands with guests, he took position and prepared to share his message.
“When it was my turn, I said, ‘Mr. Trudeau, I want you to know I’m not an activist. I voted for you. But I need you to hear me,’” he recalled.
The prime minister asked Edwards what the issue was, listened to the businessman’s explanation of his issues with Bill S-5, and then told Edwards he should speak to an MP who would act as “his messenger.”
“I said, ‘Why? You can’t talk about it?’ and he said, ‘No,’” Edwards said. “The next day it came to me; he was taking heat for these fundraisers.”
Global News asked the prime minister’s staff what to make of the fact a person can still pay to bend Trudeau’s ear on active legislation, or the optics of someone paying to attend an event with Trudeau weeks before receiving a federal appointment.
Trudeau’s spokesperson directed the question to the party.
“The event you reference was attended by over 200 people,” Liberal party spokesperson Braeden Caley said, also noting the party has nothing to do with any federal appointments.
“Justin Trudeau meets thousands of Canadians each month, and it won’t come as a surprise that Liberal supporters attend events with the leader of the Liberal party as well.”
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Caley didn’t answer a question posed about whether the fact an individual can go into such events with the sole purpose of lobbying the prime minister is a symptom of any problems with this nature of fundraising.
Earlier this year, the Liberals brought in a months-long moratorium on fundraising events featuring Trudeau and other ministers, in the wake of accusations they were providing preferential access in exchange for dollars from wealthy donors.
The events in question were often held at private residences or firms and required payments up to $1,500.
In the ensuing months, the party worked to develop new rules around the practice in an effort to increase transparency around their fundraising.
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The new system, of which the Montreal event was a part, involves holding fundraisers featuring Trudeau or ministers only in public places, announcing them in advance, allowing media to attend and disclosing the guest list within the following 45 days.
Neither opposition party has adopted equivalent methods of publicizing fundraising, which the Liberal party trumpets these changes as steps toward increased transparency.
Still, the Conservative critic said it does little save for legitimizing and formalizing “cash-for-access” fundraisers.
— With a file from The Canadian Press