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Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives at a news conference in Ottawa on Dec. 12, 2016. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives at a news conference in Ottawa on Dec. 12, 2016. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Cash-for-access organizers sought payments that exceeded federal contribution limits Add to ...

Members of the Chinese community have been asked for payments of as much as $5,000 to attend private cash-for-access functions with the Prime Minister, amounts that exceed federal contribution limits.

As part of an ongoing review of fundraising activities by the Liberal Party of Canada, The Globe and Mail spoke with invitees who described requests that suggest significant discrepancies between official ticket prices and the actual cost of entry.

One businesswoman, who splits her time between China and Canada, told The Globe she was invited to a May fundraiser by Chinese Business Chamber of Canada chair Benson Wong – an event billed as an intimate evening at Mr. Wong’s home with Justin Trudeau – at a cost of $4,500. She would only agree to be identified by her first name, Linda.

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Another invitee, a Toronto-area businessman, said the same event was pitched to him by a Chinese-Canadian association at a cost of $5,000.

Both invitees spoke with The Globe on condition of anonymity because they feared repercussions for their businesses and reputations in the Chinese-Canadian community. And both declined the offers and said they did not know why the cost exceeded the $1,525 donation limit.

Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals have been under fire over the cash-for-access fundraisers, which provide attendees with access to the Prime Minister at private functions in exchange for donations to the Liberal Party’s war chest.

In the past year, the Prime Minister has attended at least three fundraising dinners at the homes of Chinese business leaders, where he has shared a table with dozens of wealthy and influential members of the community. Some were at the time seeking federal approval for business deals, while others have ties to China’s ruling Communist Party.

But the solicitation of large sums of money by event organizers raises further questions about the fundraisers.

The Canada Elections Act prohibits “indirect contributions” – donations made out in another person’s name. No anonymous contribution over $200 is allowed.

Canadian rules do allow a fundraising event’s organizers to charge extra for the “fair market value” of food, drink and entertainment expenses.

But some invitees say they have been asked for sums well in excess of what might be considered the cost of a typical dinner. One request reportedly came from Mr. Wong, who hosted a May dinner at his home attended by a number of wealthy businessmen, some of whom were seeking final federal approval to open a new bank in Canada.

Among those he called was the businesswoman, Linda, who is a permanent resident of Canada.

“Benson Wong told me it would cost $4,500,” she said. “He said to pay $4,500 to him.”

She declined, saying the dinner was not worth the price, particularly given the dozens of people expected to attend; the crowd would limit her exposure to the Prime Minister, with the only real value “getting a photo taken,” she said.

Reached by telephone about the allegations, Mr. Wong said: “You can ask these questions to the Prime Minister’s Office.” He then hung up.

Requests to host events have come from Liberal fundraising chiefs such as Richard Zhou, a volunteer who has identified himself as the co-chair of the Liberals’ federal fundraising team. They approach leaders in the community who may be willing to open their homes to a group eager for face time with the Prime Minister.

Attendance figures suggest the party collects between $50,000 and $120,000 at events that draw wealthy entrepreneurs and community leaders in Vancouver and Toronto, home to large Chinese-Canadian business communities with people willing to pay $1,500 to meet Mr. Trudeau in a private setting.

The request for money can also come from organizations unconnected to the Liberal Party. In May, a Chinese-Canadian organization asked a Toronto businessman for $5,000 to attend Mr. Wong’s function. The maximum allowable contribution is $1,525, leaving a discrepancy of more than $3,000.

“I said I couldn’t go,” the invitee recalled, not wanting his name or that of the organization to be revealed for fear of recrimination in his community. “We didn’t talk about anything more.”

Mr. Zhou, who helped arrange the event at Mr. Wong’s, did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokeswoman for the Liberals said the party does not ask for contributions above the legal limit. “We have no evidence that this took place,” Marjolaine Provost said in an e-mailed response to The Globe’s questions.

“Regardless, any activity of this nature is unacceptable and not tolerated by the Liberal Party of Canada,” she said, adding that any donations in excess of federal limits would be reported to Elections Canada and refunded.

“This event was organized by the Liberal Party of Canada in conjunction with a volunteer host, and those in attendance that evening were all either supporters making contributions for the event or guests of the host,” she said, referring to the May event at Mr. Wong’s.

“The party works closely with volunteer event organizers and hosts to ensure they fully understand and respect all of Elections Canada’s strict federal political fundraising rules, and we set clear expectations for those rules to be followed at all times,” she said.

A former senior official with the Liberal Party of Canada told The Globe that fundraisers such as this are nevertheless difficult to monitor because political parties cannot control all aspects of private events, which are organized by volunteers and supporters who do not necessarily have an official role with the party.

The Liberal reliance on private fundraising dinners comes as the party continues to struggle under a decade-old rule change that barred corporate and union contributions, said Harold Jansen, who chairs the political science department at the University of Lethbridge and has studied party financing in Canada.

“This is the Liberals trying to figure out how to fundraise in the new era,” he said.

Canada’s Ethics Commissioner, Mary Dawson, is planning to interview the Prime Minister about the cash-for-access dinners, she wrote in letters to opposition members.

Mr. Trudeau has acknowledged he is lobbied at cash-for-access dinners. He has been urged by other parties to stop the practice, but said this month he uses meetings with wealthy donors to promote his party’s policies on the middle class.

Some in the Chinese community, however, argue the dinners merely offer a chance to cast their birth country – and its people – in a good light. There is, Linda said, “very, very little” desire to lobby Canadian leadership on specific commercial issues.

“We just simply want to show who we are, as a new generation of immigrants. Our motherland is well-developed, too, and we are proud of the motherland,” she said. “We hope to enhance the friendship between the people of the two countries.”

And, she added, “we feel honoured to have a meal in such close proximity to a national leader.”

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