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provincial politics

Kathleen Wynne, left, and Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli are holding a $6,000-a-person cocktail-and-dinner event for fewer than 30 donors at 6 p.m. on Thursday at the tony Four Seasons hotel in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Premier Kathleen Wynne is keeping secret the names of the people paying $6,000 apiece to lobby her "one on one" at a fundraiser this week.

And she is defending the practice of politicians selling access to deep-pocketed donors as "part of the democratic process," arguing it is a necessary technique to get the funds to bankroll political parties.

"The money to run a party has to come from somewhere. And so every party does fundraising. Every party does high-end fundraising, every party does low-end fundraising," she told reporters. "I think it's part of the democratic process."

As The Globe and Mail revealed earlier this week, Ms. Wynne and Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli are holding a $6,000-a-person cocktail-and-dinner event for fewer than 30 donors at 6 p.m. on Thursday at the tony Four Seasons hotel in Toronto's Yorkville neighbourhood.

A promotional e-mail for the event to prospective attendees from Chris Benedetti, an energy industry lobbyist for Sussex Strategy Group, touted the soirée's small size as "allowing for one-on-one conversations" with Ms. Wynne, Mr. Chiarelli and their advisers. He wrote that the politicians would circulate between all tables at dinner to ensure "good conversation with all in attendance."

Another e-mail from Mr. Benedetti outlined a similar event on Feb. 22 at the Park Hyatt with Mr. Chiarelli and Andrew Bevan, Ms. Wynne's chief of staff and principal secretary.

Ms. Wynne and her office have repeatedly refused to release a list of attendees for the two events.

When The Globe first asked for a list on Sunday, Ms. Wynne's communications staff did not reply to the question.

On Monday, when asked at an unrelated news conference if she would release the names, Ms. Wynne said the Liberals are "following the rules as they exist." Currently, political donations must be disclosed to Elections Ontario, but the disclosure does not provide any details such as whether the donation was made at a fundraiser. It is therefore impossible to determine what a donor received from a political party – such as access to the Premier or cabinet ministers – in exchange for a contribution.

"We follow the rules that all the parties follow. If the rules need to be changed, that's another conversation, and I am perfectly willing to engage in that. But we're following the rules as they exist," she said.

When The Globe again asked for the names on Tuesday, Ms. Wynne's spokeswoman Jennifer Beaudry replied by e-mail: "The Premier's response to your questions stand."

Ontario's rules for political donations and lobbying are notoriously lax. Corporations and trade unions are allowed to donate at the provincial level despite being banned from doing so federally. Donations are capped at $9,975 annually, but loopholes allow donors to give multiple times more: A corporation can donate the full cap amount through each of its subsidiaries, and donations during a general election or by-election do not count towards the annual limit.

Lobbyists have to register with the province's integrity commissioner, but they do not have to disclose details on specific meetings. This makes it difficult to find out exactly which politicians they have been lobbied and when.

Ms. Wynne said her government has discussed banning corporate and union donations in Ontario, but added that she did not know when a decision would be made.

"I can tell you it's a question that we are engaged in discussing at the provincial level. ... It is an unavoidable question, and it's something that we are engaged in talking about," she said. "I can't give you a time frame at this point."

The Premier, who made her comments after a meeting with municipal leaders from the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, argued that people do not have to pay $6,000 to bend her ear.

"People have access to me all the time, whether I'm walking down the street or whether I'm in a meeting room," she said.

"I just spent two and a half hours talking with mayors from across the region. They didn't pay a cent," she said. "The fact is, I spend all my days talking to people, listening to people. So people have access every single day to me. And there is another part of the democratic process which is we have to raise money."