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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne at the Ontario Liberal Party’s 20th Annual Heritage Dinnerin Toronto, March 30,2016.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Secret Liberal fundraisers, in which lobbyists traded large sums of money for one-on-one access to Premier Kathleen Wynne and her cabinet ministers, may have been illegal under provincial ethics rules, Democracy Watch says.

The advocacy group on Thursday called for Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake to investigate the fundraisers and ban such events. In a letter, Democracy Watch asked Mr. Wake to rule immediately that these events are prohibited, release a list of attendees and "monitor all policy-making processes that affect the donors to ensure no preferential treatment occurs."

"The events can be stopped today, and the laws can be changed very soon after," said Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch.

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The organization's complaint was spurred by reports in The Globe and Mail about these small-scale, high-priced fundraisers.

In March, The Globe uncovered two unpublicized Liberal events – ticket prices were $6,000 and $5,000 per plate – that granted energy industry insiders time with Ms.Wynne, Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli and Andrew Bevan, Ms. Wynne's chief of staff. Earlier this week, The Globe revealed that the Liberals held a $7,500-a-plate fundraiser in December with Mr. Chiarelli and Finance Minister Charles Sousa, promoted by an executive at the Bank of Nova Scotia, one of the banks that ran the privatization of Hydro One the previous month.

Mr. Wake's office said he is following the controversy, but has no power to do anything about Democracy Watch's complaint.

Cathryn Motherwell, director of the Office of the Integrity Commissioner, wrote in an e-mail that Mr. Wake can make inquiries if an MPP complains, but cannot take complaints from the public or start an inquiry on his own.

"The Commissioner is monitoring the issue with interest. The question of revising political party fundraising rules is important and deserves careful review by the appropriate bodies. This does not fall within the mandates of the Office," she said.

Asked if there was any merit to Democracy Watch's allegation, she replied: "Neither the Commissioner nor I can answer that question at this time."

Democracy Watch contends that small fundraisers violate the province's Members' Integrity Act, which sets out ethics rules for MPPs. The act says MPPs cannot accept a "personal benefit" connected with their duties as a politician, and that MPPs "are expected to perform their duties of office and arrange their private affairs in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity of each member."

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Because the donations are made in exchange for access to the politician, and are then used to help the politician get re-elected, Democracy Watch contends that they constitute an "illegal gift" to the politicians.

The group also contends there is a difference between large public fundraisers, at which donors get little one-on-one time with the politicians, and smaller private events where access is the reason to attend.

Campaign finance expert Robert MacDermid, who has raised concerns about these fundraisers, said he does not believe they are prohibited under the Integrity Act. He said that if Ontario's former NDP government, which created the rules in 1994, had intended to ban small, secret fundraisers, the party likely would have taken complaints about such events to the commissioner previously.

"I very much doubt that they had in mind banning this sort of thing. If they had, the NDP did not complain or did not get a ruling from the commissioner when similar events were made public in the past," he said.

Dr. MacDermid, a political science professor at Toronto's York University, said it was "interesting" that only MPPs can get the commissioner to rule on such things: "Interesting way of safeguarding group practices. Wonder who will step forward."

Ms. Wynne on Thursday repeated promises to reform campaign finance, but said changes would not take effect for "a number of years."

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"If you look at the federal system where union and corporate donations are not allowed, that is the model that we'll be moving towards," she said at a school photo-op in Kingston, Ont. "But also recognizing that it took a number of years for the federal government to get to that point because the systems are different."

Mr. Conacher, of Democracy Watch, said the Liberals should not only ban union and corporate donations, but reduce the individual donation cap to prevent groups funnelling money through their employees. Quebec, with its $100-per-person limit, should be the gold standard, he said.

He added that Ms. Wynne's statements on the issue have not been promising. "It sounds like she's not going to do very much any time soon."

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called on Ms. Wynne on Thursday to hold a "fair and transparent process" for deciding on the new rules. In a letter, she asked Ms. Wynne to meet with her, Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown and Chief Electoral Officer Greg Essensa to decide on a process.

"Ontarians should feel confident that any reforms reflect the principle of democratic equality, are clear and fair, and are responsive to what Ontarians want to see and what works across Canada and around the globe," she wrote, adding that the new rules "must seek and obtain widespread consensus beyond the governing party and indeed beyond the parties themselves."

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