The governing B.C. Liberal Party says it has nothing to apologize for after a Globe and Mail investigation found that lobbyists are illegally funnelling money to the party on behalf of corporate and special interests.
"We have done nothing wrong, we have nothing to hide," Deputy Premier Rich Coleman told reporters in Victoria.
However, in response to an Elections B.C. investigation of potential contraventions of fundraising laws, the party is issuing new warnings to its political donors against making indirect contributions.
The opposition New Democrats are also conducting a review to determine whether any of their donations violated the law.
The online fundraising page for the B.C. Liberals now includes a disclaimer, which will also be added to the party's contribution forms, stating: "The Election Act prohibits individuals from being reimbursed for a political contribution by a company, organization, or other individual. Any donation using your personal credit card must be a personal contribution from you."
The change comes just 65 days before the next provincial election, and after the B.C. Liberals reaped $12.4-million last year in contributions through lucrative cash-for-access fundraisers, including small, private dinners with Premier Christy Clark for $10,000 a plate or more.
Ms. Clark was not available for comment on Monday, but Mr. Coleman said it is up to donors to ensure they stay on the right side of the law.
"The people who are buying or donating to whatever political party in B.C., they have to follow the law and they need to know the law when they are making a donation," said Mr. Coleman, one of the party's key fundraisers. "For us to somehow reverse-audit that I think is pretty hard, I don't think we'd have the resources for that."
Elections B.C. launched an investigation into indirect political contributions and other potential contraventions of the Election Act as a result of a Globe and Mail report. The probe will look at tens of thousands of dollars in multiple donations made by power brokers such as Mark Jiles and Byng Giraud, who paid under their own names with personal credit cards. Both registered lobbyists acknowledged to The Globe they were buying Liberal fundraising tickets on behalf of their clients and companies and being reimbursed, which is against the law.
The agency says it may forward matters to the Criminal Justice Branch if it appears that the Election Act has been contravened.
With only two weeks likely remaining in the legislative session before this spring's election campaign gets under way, the governing Liberals have promised to introduce a bill that would provide up-to-date reports on campaign contributions.
NDP Leader John Horgan told reporters on Monday that the promised enhanced transparency will do nothing to close the door on cash-for-access fundraisers that have allowed the B.C. Liberals to stuff their campaign war chest.
"It's the influence that money is having on policy decisions that troubles British Columbians," Mr. Horgan said. He added that he has asked his party officials to review the past three years' worth of donations to determine if the NDP wrongly received money, but he said he was not too worried that it has been improperly enriched.
"This is not about the practices of the parties. It's about a government that doesn't see this ethical blind spot, and that is, they are taking massive amounts of money from people who need government decisions made in their favour," Mr. Horgan told reporters.
The New Democrats were not alone in pressing the B.C. Liberal government to reform political fundraising.
Independent MLA Vicki Huntington called on the government to adopt a bill she has proposed that would limit the size of contributions people can make – a measure adopted in other provinces, including Ontario, Quebec and Alberta. "My legislation would also ban cash-for-access events and corporate and union donations, but only a hard cap would have stopped these lobbyists in their tracks," she said.
The advocacy group Democracy Watch criticized B.C.'s Chief Electoral Officer for "negligent" enforcement of the political donation rules, and said anyone found to have concealed lobbyist donations should be prosecuted.
The Registrar of Lobbyists is also calling for more stringent controls to ensure the public can see how government arrives at its decisions. "We want to bring lobbying out of the shadows," deputy registrar Jay Fedorak said in an interview. He noted that lobbyists have no code of conduct in B.C., and the registry has little authority. "We want the public to know who is lobbying whom," he said.
B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver said the RCMP should handle the investigation because they would have greater powers to access information. "It's shocking what is going on … We'd expect this in a tin-pot dictatorship in some island state in the middle of nowhere. This is B.C."