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gary mason

Did B.C. Premier Christy Clark cross an ethical and legal line when she attended a private, $10,000-a-plate fundraising dinner for 10 people, one of many she is scheduled to be sitting down for in the coming months?

That is the question that New Democratic MLA David Eby wants the province's conflict-of-interest commissioner, Paul Fraser, to investigate.

In a letter to Mr. Fraser provided to The Globe and Mail, Mr. Eby says there are strong grounds for the commissioner to probe revelations made in the paper this week about the Premier's attendance at exclusive fundraising events. The matter has also become an issue in Ontario, where Premier Kathleen Wynne is under fire over disclosures by The Globe and others that she and members of her cabinet have been involved in dinners at which attendees paid thousands of dollars for exclusive access to the most powerful politicians in the province.

The fundraising allegations have prompted widespread calls for more stringent rules and guidelines in both provinces around the face time political donors are getting in exchange for large sums of money, interactions that are possibly putting elected officials in a perceived or real conflict of interest.

"The most powerful MLA in the province, the Premier, has access to decision-making power that can be seen to be influenced by large donations from private individuals," Mr. Eby, a lawyer, said in an interview. "There is an extra duty that she [Ms. Clark] has to be transparent and accountable for the activities that she engages in when fundraising."

In reviewing recent decisions made by conflict commissioners around this issue, Mr. Eby noted that a complaint laid against former NDP premier Mike Harcourt over his attendance at a $40-a-plate fundraising event in the 1990s was quickly dismissed. However, in Alberta, the ethics commissioner was asked to rule on a private $5,000-a-plate event involving former premier Ed Stelmach. In commenting on the perception the public would have about such an event, the commissioner wrote: "Unfortunately, the lack of disclosure of donors' names and the price tag attached to some events leads to allegations of privileged access and questions of possible rewards in exchange for donations."

More recently in Alberta, the ethics commissioner, in ruling on a private $750-a-person fundraising event at which NDP Premier Rachel Notley was scheduled to appear, said "the perception that only a chosen few are being invited is best avoided." In his letter to Mr. Fraser, Mr. Eby writes: "The Premier of British Columbia under our Conflict of Interest Act is not permitted to sell access to her office – she cannot demand a fee in exchange for a meeting.

"The act … does prohibit engaging in 'official acts or duties' that carry the perception of conflict," Mr. Eby concludes.

He said the implications of the conflict law for the leader of the governing party are starkly different from those for the leader of the official opposition, or any party leader who is not in government for obvious reasons: They are not in the same position to bestow a benefit based on a political donation. The Premier and her cabinet ministers control the levers of government in a way opposition MLAs do not.

The B.C. Liberals have refused to disclose the identity of those individuals attending the high-priced events with Ms. Clark. However, this week, in response to The Globe's revelations, the Premier said she is instructing the province's chief electoral officer to change existing laws to allow political parties to log donations "in real time." According to her office, this means the amount of money taken in at fundraising events, and the identity of those attending, will be revealed more frequently than just annually as is now the case.

While the B.C. NDP has been critical of Ms. Clark's fundraising activities, it has been criticized itself for similar events involving the party's leader, John Horgan. He recently attended a $5,000-a-plate breakfast in Toronto and has another $2,000-a-plate fundraiser in Vancouver coming up.

The NDP Leader has defended his actions on the grounds he is only playing by the rules that currently exist. And beyond that, he's insisted that he is not in the same position of conflict Ms. Clark is because of the role she plays.

The NDP has called for a ban on corporate and union donations, one that several provinces and the federal government have adopted. So far, the B.C. Liberals have refused to embrace this idea.

Sources told The Globe that Ms. Clark has attended small fundraisers where the ticket price is $20,000 or more. These reports have not been disputed by the party.

"When you're talking $20,000-a-plate private events, I think we're getting into the range where the amount of money and the private access that is granted for that money starts to raise red flags," Mr. Eby told The Globe.

"That is why I think the commissioner should be involved here."

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