The Liberals promised to boot anyone registered to lobby Prime Minster Justin Trudeau from his fundraising events – which have been roundly criticized for providing special access to Trudeau and other ministers for anyone willing to pay – but some are still making it into the “cash-for-access” events.
More than half a dozen lobbyists were on either event’s published guest list — some specifically registered to lobby Trudeau and his office.
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‘Clerical errors’ and changed names
When Global News asked the Liberal party to reconcile some names on the Montreal guest list with its pledge to prohibit some lobbyists from attending, a party spokesperson said a “clerical error” led to two guests’ names being included on the list when they shouldn’t have.
The spokesperson, Marjolaine Provost, would not confirm the names of those guests, but a side-by-side comparison of the original list with the updated one showed that one name was removed and another was changed.
Antoine Boujold was registered to lobby the PMO on behalf of a forest products manufacturer at the time of the Montreal event and appeared on the original guest list. After Global News asked the Liberals about his attendance, his name was removed, and Cindy Boujold’s was added in his place.
The spokesperson for the party said the change was on account that Antoine registered, but his partner, Cindy, actually attended. Neither was available by telephone despite repeated attempts to connect.
“When we screen out lobbyists, we make sure that no lobbyist attends that is registered to lobby the special guest,” Provost wrote in an email. “This means … some individuals who may be registered to lobby other government departments could be in attendance at the event. However, no one who is registered to lobby the special guest should be included.”
Though most of the lobbyists named on the guest lists weren’t registers to lobby the PMO, some were.
Louise Burgess, a communications manager with Canadian “low-cost” gold producer Eldorado Gold Corporation, went to the Vancouver event on May 18, where guests had to pay between $90 and $740 to attend.
Burgess has been registered to lobby the Prime Minister’s Office since May 2016 on international trade and relations, as well as mining issues.
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In an email, Eldorado Gold VP Krista Muhr said the company was “not at the event in question in any official capacity.
Burgess did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls; the Liberal spokesperson noted Burgess was one of 250 guests present that evening.
Jean-Francois Gagne, the CEO of Element AI, a Canadian company dealing in artificial intelligence products, was also at the May 4 event in Montreal. Unlike Burgess, however, his registration to lobby the PMO came a little more than a week after the event.
The Montreal event required a donation between $65 and $250 to attend.
According to the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying, any changes to a lobbyist’s registration are due by the 15th of the month following a meeting, or once a decision is made to lobby a particular office in the future.
In other words, Gagne’s updated registration with the commissioner’s office either indicates a recent meeting with the Prime Minister’s Office or a future intention to lobby it, the commissioner’s spokesperson said.
Lobbyists ‘can’t flip a switch’
Whether attending as a private citizen, a lobbyist will likely still take the opportunity to bend the prime minister’s ear on an issue, Conservative MP John Brassard said.
“If you’re a registered lobbyist, you’re not going to flip a switch at these events,” he said in an interview. “You’re going there with a specific goal in mind.”
The Montreal and Vancouver events represent the first two fundraisers featuring Trudeau since the Liberals undertook steps to increase the transparency of their fundraising efforts.
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Ahead of the Montreal event, several people authorized to speak about – and try to influence decisions on – a host of issues with members of the Prime Minister’s Office were revealed to have signed up to attend.
The Liberal Party subsequently announced those lobbyists were told they couldn’t attend and were removed from the guest list, though their names were not made public.
The self-imposed rules came following a months-long moratorium on so-called cash-for-access events featuring Trudeau, or any other minister, the party imposed in the wake of accusations the events provided preferential access in exchange for helping fill the party’s coffers.
The events in question were often held at private residences or firms and required payments up to $1,500.
‘Lipstick on a pig’
The new system 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.
Provost, the Liberal party spokesperson, said their attempts to increase transparency is a large undertaking and will take some time to perfect.
“While unfortunate, this error was identifiable because unlike other parties, we are committed to publicly and transparently reporting the list of event attendees,” she wrote in an emailed statement, specifically referring to the “clerical errors” on the Montreal guest list.
Neither opposition party has adopted equivalent methods of publicizing fundraising, though the Liberals have introduced legislation that will, if passed, require them to do so.
But Brassard said the Conservative Party will be ready to follow whatever becomes law, despite his belief the rules do little more than legitimize and formalize a “cash-for-access” scheme.
“You can’t put lipstick on a pig,” he said. “These events are what they are. People are paying for access and they’re paying to bend the prime minister ear or a minister’s ear … Their new rules just provide cover for an activity that fills Liberal coffers.”