The BC Liberal Party says it is returning nearly $100,000 to donors after a Globe and Mail investigation revealed lobbyists had made indirect contributions that obscured the source of the money – a practice that is now the focus of an RCMP investigation.
The party issued a statement late Friday afternoon that said it had identified 43 contributions totalling $92,874.36 in which donors used their personal credit cards and were later reimbursed. The statement acknowledges such donations are "prohibited."
In addition, the Liberals say 30 people approached the party to report "clerical errors" that resulted in donations being recorded as personal donations rather than contributions from their employers. The party says it will notify Elections BC of those errors and will "proceed as required," though it did not confirm whether those donations would also be returned.
The Globe investigation prompted Elections BC to launch a probe, later handed over to the RCMP, into the fundraising practices of the province's political parties. The governing Liberals and the opposition New Democrats also announced reviews of their own fundraising records.
"Much of the confusion around these issues has taken place as more contributions and ticket purchases have moved online," said the statement from Liberal spokesman Emile Scheffel, who added the party has made changes to its online payment system.
Mr. Scheffel declined to reveal the names of the problem donors, citing the RCMP investigation.
Political fundraising has been shaping up as a potential campaign issue ahead of the spring election.
Premier Christy Clark has responded by announcing an independent panel to review the province's election laws, which impose few limits on who can donate or on the size of their donations. Ms. Clark has also proposed more frequent disclosure, which her party recently began doing voluntarily.
The governing Liberals have been criticized for cash-for-access events in which donors pay thousands of dollars for a chance to sit down with the Premier. Ms. Clark was also criticized for accepting a $50,000 yearly stipend from her party, in addition to her salary as Premier. She announced earlier this year she would no longer take the stipend but instead be reimbursed by the party for expenses.
Glen Sanford, deputy director of the B.C. New Democrats, said the Liberals statement left unanswered questions.
"Let's start with who were the donors involved? It doesn't address at all the serious allegations that [The Globe and Mail] revealed," he said.
He also wondered why the party's statement did not say it was also returning money to 30 people who reported "clerical errors."
"They may be clerical errors, but they're also improper donations. And when we checked with Elections BC, they referred us to the section of the Elections Act that said improper donations need to be returned within 30 days," he said.
The NDP earlier this month returned cash to two donors after an internal review found the contributions had been improper. One donation of $7,250 had been attributed to an individual donor who bought tickets to a fundraiser and was later reimbursed by their employer. The second donation was for $1,500 and also involved a person who was later reimbursed by their employer.
Green Party leader Andrew Weaver said the problems surfacing with lobbyists' donations could be avoided if the government simply banned contributions from corporations and unions.
"The donations should not have been there in the first place," Mr. Weaver said in an interview. "And if they had actually done what people have been calling for, which is ban corporate and union donations, we wouldn't be in this position."
The Green Party banned corporate and union donations last year.
Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher said he was surprised to see the Liberals say individuals and organizations were "unaware that reimbursements were not permitted under the [Elections] Act."
"Ignorance of the law is not an excuse," Mr. Conacher said. "I think all of these people should be prosecuted because they made an illegal donation."
He'd like to see that happen before the provincial election in May.
"It sounds like all the facts are there – those facts should be turned over to the RCMP and the prosecution should proceed."