Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party has asked registered lobbyists to help sell tickets to Premier Doug Ford’s coming fundraising dinner, an event that companies and industry groups say they feel pressure to attend to maintain high-level access to the government.
The $1,250-a-person dinner is being billed as the largest fundraiser in party history and marks the first sizable event since the Ford government rolled back some of the campaign-finance reforms implemented by the former Liberal government after a cash-for-access scandal.
However, lagging ticket sales for the Feb. 27 event have prompted intense efforts to push people to attend and, in some cases, help persuade others to do so, according to multiple sources in business, government relations and the PC Party. The sources were granted anonymity by The Globe and Mail because of fears of negative professional consequences.
Several people helping sell tickets, both in the lobbying and industry worlds, said they are under heavy pressure – including through repeated phone calls and reminders of sales targets by party fundraisers – to fill the room amid concerns about their continued ability to get meetings with key decision-makers.
It is not unusual or against the rules for political parties to team up with lobbyists to help with fundraising. Some sources, however, say the Tories are exerting unprecedented levels of pressure coupled with the message that not moving tickets could lead to reduced access. Others, however, say the PC Party is not doing anything more than the Liberals did before the Kathleen Wynne Liberal government brought in new restrictions.
Marcus Mattinson, a PC Party spokesman, said it is “categorically false” that party fundraisers are communicating that government access could suffer if people don’t buy tickets.
“Fundraising is an essential part of the democratic process, for all political parties in Ontario. Our party’s fundraising events range from $25 spaghetti dinners across the province to the annual Leader’s Dinner,” he said in an e-mail.
In an e-mail obtained by The Globe and Mail, Chris Benedetti, a registered lobbyist at Sussex Strategy Group, encouraged clients to attend the Feb. 27 dinner, noting he and two colleagues are on the event’s organizing committee.
“Sussex has been asked to help with the event,” Mr. Benedetti, who has dozens of clients in the energy sector, wrote on Feb. 5. “We hope that you will consider acquiring a table.”
The e-mail says tables cost $12,500 for 10 people and offers assistance “assembling individual registrations to then be sent in as a package.” In Ontario, political donations must be made by individuals and cannot exceed $1,600 a year. Corporate and union contributions are banned.
In an interview, Mr. Benedetti stressed that he was only offering to help individual clients sit with other people they know at the same table and said that he has long helped promote fundraising events for all parties. Mr. Benedetti said he has not heard any suggestions that skipping the event would mean diminished access to decision-makers.
The Globe has confirmed that lobbyists from several other companies that represent a range of clients in dealing with Mr. Ford’s government, including StrategyCorp and Enterprise, have been asked to sell tickets. Lobbyists at the two companies said their involvement with the event is akin to assistance with past party fundraisers.
However, lobbyists from two other companies told The Globe that they felt pressure to fill a table if they wanted to keep getting access to the government on behalf of their clients. And another source from an industry group that has frequent dealings with the government described being handed a target for ticket sales to the sector, with frequent reminders from the party.
Another source with business before the government said he was told by a party fundraiser that a failure to buy tickets would be reflected in a lack of future meetings with high-ranking officials.
Robert MacDermid, a campaign finance expert and retired political science professor at York University, said it is unethical for party fundraisers to broker access to top government officials.
“In a democracy, everyone is supposed to have equal access to elected representatives. The notion that you have to buy a fundraising ticket goes against that, very seriously,” he said.
The notice for the fundraiser on the party’s website initially included a 90-minute “V.I.P. Reception” before dinner. But after The Globe asked the party about the event earlier this week, Mr. Mattinson said the VIP reception “has been cancelled due to overwhelming demand.”
Mr. Ford recently encouraged Bay Street bankers at a private meeting to buy tickets to the dinner if they wanted to get to know him better, according to a source who attended the gathering. Asked about the comment, the Premier’s spokesman, Simon Jefferies, said Mr. Ford “is continuing to motivate grassroots supporters to contribute to and support the party.”
The PC Party is hoping to raise at least $2-million at the dinner, according to sources. Mr. Mattinson said the party is “on track for ticket sales” and “excited at the overwhelming support of this event.”
To raise $2-million, the party would have to sell 1,600 tickets at $1,250 each before expenses.
The PC Party, which does not have to disclose who buys tickets to fundraisers under provincial rules, has so far reported 155 donations matching the dinner’s ticket price of $1,250, according to the latest available information on Elections Ontario’s website. An additional 33 people have made the maximum yearly contribution of $1,600. Political parties must disclose donations within 10 business days of depositing the funds.
Under new rules that took effect on Jan. 1, the government scrapped a ban that prevented the Premier, cabinet ministers and MPPs from attending fundraising events. The government also removed a requirement that all contributors fill out a form certifying that the donation was “from my own personal funds and I will not be reimbursed for it.” As well, the province raised the maximum political contribution to $1,600 a year from $1,222.
The Liberal rules were prompted by controversy over Ms. Wynne’s party trading access for large donations, which involved some of the same players now helping Mr. Ford raise money.
In March, 2016, the Globe reported on an e-mail from Mr. Benedetti and Sussex Strategy encouraging energy industry insiders to attend an intimate $6,000-a-person dinner with Ms. Wynne and then-energy minister Bob Chiarelli. With that and other such events facing intense scrutiny, the Liberals introduced the sweeping new rules – now partly rolled back – later the same year.
Ontario’s Office of the Integrity Commissioner, which oversees lobbyists’ compliance with provincial law, declined to comment when contacted by The Globe. Under existing rules, lobbyists are prohibited from putting public office holders, including MPPs, in positions of real or potential conflict of interest. There are no specific rules governing MPPs’ interactions with lobbyists, however elected representatives are forbidden from accepting “a fee, gift or personal benefit” connected to their office under the Members’ Integrity Act.
With a report from Andrew Willis