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British Columbia Donations taint B.C.'s approval of Trans Mountain pipeline expansion: advocacy groups

Premier Christy Clark is pictured in her office at the Provincial Legislature in Victoria on Dec. 16, 2016.

CHAD HIPOLITO/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The B.C. government's approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion has been tainted by hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from the project's owner and the oil industry to the B.C. Liberal party, say advocacy groups in a newly filed court challenge.

Democracy Watch and the PIPE UP Network filed court documents Tuesday that argue the province's environmental assessment certificate for Kinder Morgan's $6.8-billion project should be overturned. The B.C. government awarded the certificate last month, and then  B.C. Premier Christy Clark concluded the project met her conditions."

In an application for judicial review, the groups point to $560,000 in political donations from project proponent Kinder Morgan and other companies connected to the pipeline sector.

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The challenge also raises concerns about a $50,000 stipend Ms. Clark received from her party, which the groups say was linked to the success of party fundraising. Ms. Clark has recently said she will no longer receive the payment, but rather claim expenses for party duties.

"I expect that with donations of this malodorous amount, we have a significant prospect of success," lawyer Jason Gratl, representing the two groups, said in an interview.

"The legal test is whether a competent, informed observer would consider the amount sufficient to taint the decision making so as to lend the decision making a conscious or unconscious bias."

Mr. Gratl said the facts do not appear to be in dispute in the case, leaving it to the courts to consider the legal issues involved.

The BC Liberal party declined comment and the premiers' office referred questions to the provincial environment ministry.

In a statement, the Environment Ministry did not directly address the allegations, but rather emphasized that the pipeline project was approved by the federal government and then by the province which had five conditions, part of a "clear, consistent, and principled position" for supporting the project

Political donations have been a major issue in British Columbia, with the BC Liberals, in particular, facing criticism over the absence of fundraising limits in the province. That void has led to some of the largest political donations in Canada - six-figure contributions to the governing parties that have raised questions about how they might influence the government.

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Ms. Clark, preparing to lead her party into an election this May in which it appears likely that fundraisng will be an issue, has ruled out banning corporate and union donations - an option the opposition B.C. NDP says will be a top legislative priority if it wins power. Ms. Clark has cited new measures by her party on the file, notably a move by the Liberals to report political donations within two weeks of receiving the money. The government has said it will bring in legislation to make that a requirement for all parties.

Ms. Clark has also given up a annual $50,000 stipend the party was providing her - a program of compensation that Democracy Watch has previously criticized.

Democracy Watch previously lost a legal bid to have two rulings by B.C.'s conflict of interest commissioner on provincial Liberal fundraising activities set aside. The rulings by the conflict commissioner cleared Ms. Clark of conflict allegations linked to her attendance at fundraising events.

Duff Conacher, co founder of Democracy Watch, said he hopes a win in the courts will send a message on big money in politics, regardless of the outcome of the May provincial election that could lead to a change of government in British Columbia.

He noted that the opposition B.C. NDP has faced questions over fundraising. Party Leader John Horgan has attended expensive fundraising events, and said they are necessary for his party to be in a position to compete with the Liberals, who have raised more money.

"It's a systemic issue. It's an important ruling to win," Mr. Conacher said in an interview on Tuesday.

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