British Columbia's elections agency has referred its investigation into political fundraising to the RCMP, just weeks before the start of a spring election campaign.
Elections BC announced the probe after The Globe and Mail reported that the BC Liberal Party collected tens of thousands of dollars in multiple donations from lobbyists who paid under their own names with personal credit cards on behalf of clients and companies, and were reimbursed. An Elections BC spokesperson said such donations are "potentially contraventions of the Elections Act."
The agency announced Friday it had handed off the file to the RCMP to ensure the investigation did not interfere with the administration of the May election, in which the Liberals are seeking a fifth consecutive term in government and the NDP a return to power for the first time since 2001.
RCMP spokeswoman Sergeant Annie Linteau confirmed that the Mounties had taken up the case after receiving a request from Elections BC to investigate "allegations of indirect contributions and other potential contraventions of the Elections Act."
"We can confirm that an investigation into these allegations has been initiated and we will take the time necessary to conduct a thorough investigation," Sgt. Linteau said in a statement.
Asked whether there was any possibility of the investigation being completed before British Columbians go to the polls on May. 9, Sgt. Linteau said in an e-mail exchange said she could not offer a timeline.
The development comes amid concerns over fundraising in a province with few rules covering campaign finance – a situation that has led to six-figure donations to the governing BC Liberals that are among the highest contributions in Canadian politics. The governing party has faced repeated calls to impose limits on who can donate and how much they can give, but Premier Christy Clark has rejected such changes.
Elections BC, which has said it is not focusing on any particular party, said in a statement that it may still provide support to the RCMP.
Ms. Clark attempted to play down the investigation, telling reporters in Kimberley, that it was focused on "people who broke the rules" rather than political parties. In fact, Elections BC has said the investigation involves not only donors, but also the financial agents of political parties that have received donations. The agency cited a section of the province's Elections Act that requires parties' financial agents to record information about contributors.
"I hope that they get to the bottom of it and whatever happens that everybody remembers we have rules around donations," the Premier said. "They must be respected and if they're not respected, you may be breaking the law."
The Liberals have previously denied any wrongdoing, but also said it would "review and remedy issues" raised by The Globe's reporting.
Ms. Clark has said her government will introduce legislation on Monday to implement "real-time" disclosure of campaign donations as previously promised. However, that bill will not limit donations to stem the cash for access that helped her party raise more than $12-million last year. The Liberals have been voluntarily posting weekly campaign donation updates on their website this year.
NDP Leader John Horgan, whose party raised $6.2-million in 2016, said in an interview that the Liberal government could go a long way to resolving the whole situation by adopting a bill he has tabled to eliminate corporate and union donations.
"If the Liberals don't have the jam to do it [next week], we'll do it after the next election," Mr. Horgan said, adding that campaign finance is now on the agenda for the NDP.
The party is conducting an internal probe to determine if it received any indirect donations. Glen Sanford, NDP deputy director, said Friday that the party has contacted several individuals to ask if they gave donations that were later billed to an organization, but he said it has not heard back.
He said if the party doesn't hear back by Monday, or if it learns there is a problem, the NDP will report those contributions to Elections BC. He said the party feels confident in its records and welcomes the RCMP investigation.
Dermod Travis, executive director of IntegrityBC, a non-partisan political watchdog organization, said he had no problem if the RCMP doesn't conclude an investigation by election day because he expects the media, opposition and organizations such as his would elicit information to help voters assess what is emerging as a "ballot-box question."
"I don't think the RCMP should be forced to rush an investigation to suit an election timeline," he said.
Earlier in the week, Mr. Travis said his organization had questions about more than 350 donations totalling in excess of $1-million from people representing special interests who gave contributions in their own names several times in the past decade. He said Friday that the number had increased to 430 and that he planned to share that information with the RCMP.