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Preston Manning, seen here in Ottawa on Feb. 9, 2018, created the Manning Centre.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The Manning Centre put out a fundraising call for election advertising and then passed that money along to a series of third-party political groups that have been running attack ads against the federal Liberals, the organization said.

But the source of the Manning Centre’s donations to those groups, worth more than $300,000, will remain hidden from public view since the Calgary-based conservative think tank, which has not registered as a third party with Elections Canada, does not intend to disclose them.

Elections Canada says there is nothing in the law to prevent outside groups from raising money and then passing those donations along to third-party advertisers. However, the group Democracy Watch plans to file a complaint with the federal elections commissioner in response to The Globe and Mail’s reporting on the Manning Centre donations.

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The Manning Centre, which was created by former Reform Party leader Preston Manning, who now sits on the board of directors, has so far donated a total of $312,450 to five groups that are affiliated with one another. The largest donation, $240,500, went to a group called Canada Strong and Proud, and another $45,000 to Québec Fier (French for Quebec Proud). The Manning Centre also provided smaller donations to NL Strong, NS Proud and Proudly New Brunswick.

Mr. Manning said in an e-mail that his centre’s election spending is merely intended to “balance the playing field” by countering well-funded anti-conservative groups. He said the centre has not dictated how the third-party groups spend the money or the ads they create.

“We have supporters and donors who were appalled at the number of anti-conservative PACs [political action committees] and social media activists who participated in the last federal election and the magnitude of their expenditures in comparison to those of conservative PACs and third party advertisers,” he wrote.

Troy Lanigan, president of the Manning Centre, said his group put out a fundraising call in the lead-up to the election campaign to help fund its donations to third-party groups. He said the centre’s donations to the third parties also included money from its general revenues.

“When it was known that we were going to do some third-party advertising, we talked it up, and there was interest in the donor community to support that," he said.

Mr. Lanigan declined to name any of those donors.

“There was no suggestion to them that their names would be disclosed,” he said.

Mr. Lanigan said the centre followed the letter of the law and he didn’t see any problems with how his group raised money and then donated it to third-parties.

Elections Canada spokeswoman Natasha Gauthier said third-party groups are required to disclose all of their donations but the law doesn’t deal with how those donors got that money.

“They have to list the contributor, that’s what the regulations say,” she said in an interview. “They don’t have to list the contributors’ contributor.”

The groups that received the Manning Centre donations are not connected to Ontario Proud and Canada Proud, which were the subject of a Globe investigation about the rise of third-party money in Canadian elections.

Third-party groups that spend money on advertising or other political activities are required to register and disclose the sources of their donations. They faced a spending limit of about $1-million in a pre-writ period that began on June 30, and another limit of $511,700 during the campaign. Third parties are also forbidden from collaborating with political parties, and they can’t work together, or split into multiple organizations, to circumvent the spending caps.

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, argued the Manning Centre should be considered a third party and be required to disclose its donors, particularly when donations were earmarked for election spending. Otherwise, he said, laws designed to make third-party groups transparent can’t be effective.

“I think the Commissioner of Canada Elections should be interpreting the law in this way,” he said in an interview. “Interpretation starts with: ‘What’s the purpose of the law and the purpose of the rule?’ It is to ensure we know who is bankrolling third parties."

He drew a distinction between groups such as the Manning Centre that are also collecting their own donations, and unions or corporations, whose funding sources are clear.

“It’s not like a union funding another organization and it’s not like a corporation funding another organization – you know where that money comes from," he said.

Mr. Conacher said he also wants the commissioner to look at whether there are any issues with the third parties working together, though the groups that received Manning Centre funding, collectively, haven’t reached the spending cap, according to their most recent financial disclosures. Mr. Lanigan said the Manning Centre says it does not plan to spend more than the $312,450 it has already donated.

Chris Russell, who is the financial agent for Canada Strong and Proud, NL Strong and NS Proud, said his groups follow the law.

“All donations have been carefully disclosed according to the rules of the Elections Act,” said the statement, which noted the larger budgets of union-funded groups. “Thanks to the Manning Centre, the fight isn’t completely one-sided anymore.”

Québec Fier’s financial agent, Nicolas Gagnon, did not respond to messages about that group’s activities.

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