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Ontario ministerial aides tapped to sell tickets to fundraisers

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's speaks during a press conference on political fundraising at Queen's Park, April 11, 2016.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Political staff of many Ontario cabinet ministers double as fundraisers for the Liberal Party, encouraging companies that do business with government to buy tickets to private events hosted by the same ministers who make decisions on contracts and policy.

The Globe and Mail has obtained several invitations to Liberal fundraisers that list ministerial aides as contact people selling tickets.

And more than a half dozen sources in companies doing business with the province say it is commonplace for staffers to invite them to donate to the politicians they deal with.

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Such methods for soliciting cash raise tough questions about how the Ontario government can ensure policy and contracting decisions are made objectively when the people making those decisions are also working the fundraising circuit.

Read more: An inside look at cash-for-access Ontario Liberal fundraisers

In some cases, staffers would tell stakeholders that a minister they wanted to meet with did not have time to see them during regular business hours, many of the sources said – but they could instead buy a ticket to a fundraiser and meet the minister there. The consequences to companies of not going was that their phone calls would not be returned and they would be treated more brusquely, some sources said.

The practice of staffers raising money for the party is legal, and there is no indication that any of them used government resources for fundraising. Typically, they would use personal e-mails or mobile phones to contact potential donors.

The Globe has published stories revealing that Liberals were selling face-time with cabinet ministers – typically over cocktails and dinner – in exchange for donations of up to $10,000. Since then, Premier Kathleen Wynne has brought forward campaign finance legislation, Bill 201, which bans corporate and union donations. The legislation does not, however, prohibit raising money from stakeholders or trading cash for access.

Ms. Wynne's office said Monday that there was no connection between government decision-making and staffers' involvement in fundraising.

"Decisions made by the Premier and the Cabinet are always made with the best interests of Ontarians in mind. Political staff also act on the best interests of Ontarians as they advise their ministers on government decisions," Jean-Simon Farrah, a spokesman for Ms. Wynne, wrote in an e-mail. "Our government is committed to a rational, depoliticized and evidence-based process when determining policy."

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In testimony before a legislative committee studying Bill 201 last month, former Liberal cabinet minister John Gerretsen acknowledged that he used to assign his staff to meet his fundraising quota from the Liberals, which was $50,000 during his final year in office. He said his staffers would go over to Liberal headquarters, a nondescript brick office building on St. Mary Street, a few blocks from Queen's Park, to call up potential donors and get them to events. The Liberal party already employs paid fundraisers to do this sort of work.

"Most of the people that come [to fundraisers] are primarily lobbyists from different organizations, particularly if you're a minister, that have something to do with your ministry in one way or another," he told the committee. "I basically just let my staff look after that and they made their calls from St. Mary Street and people showed up."

Mr. Gerretsen spent more than a decade in cabinet, serving in several portfolios – including attorney-general, consumer services, environment and municipal affairs – before standing down at the 2014 election.

"Did some people get quicker access because they happened to be at my fundraiser? You'd have to talk to my staff about that," he said at the hearing. "But the perception is certainly there that if you give money to a particular government, you may have quicker access. And the general public … may get the impression that some people get preferential treatment with having their issue at least heard or debated."

A series of event invitations, obtained by The Globe, and sources in lobbying firms and industries that do business with the province, confirmed that this was common practice.

One invitation, to a $2,500-a-ticket cocktail reception on Nov. 30 last year for Michael Coteau, then the minister of tourism, culture and sport, told donors to contact his director of stakeholder relations, Sara Alimardani, to RSVP.

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"This will be an exclusive and intimate evening," the invite promised. The event was held at a private lounge in Hush Restaurant, an upscale bar in Toronto's entertainment district.

Two invitations for events last year with then-attorney-general Madeleine Meilleur listed her policy adviser, Donna Popovic, as the contact person. One soirée, a $400-per-person evening at the Spoke Club on King Street West, was on June 4, 2015. The other $400 event, on Dec. 1, 2014, took place at the Albany Club, a traditional conservative hangout.

Two 2014 invitations for events with Government House Leader Yasir Naqvi listed his then-chief of staff, Jackie Choquette, as the person selling tickets. One occasion was a March 27 event at Ripley's Aquarium for $400; the other a $350 cocktail party at the Bay Street offices of law firm Fasken Martineau on Nov. 26.

Several sources pointed to Andrew Teliszewsky, chief of staff to Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault and his predecessor Bob Chiarelli, as one particularly active fundraiser. Four people reported receiving telephone calls from Mr. Teliszewsky over the past year, urging them to spend thousands of dollars to get into the room with Mr. Chiarelli.

Among the events he promoted, the sources said, was a controversial $7,500-a-ticket fundraiser last December for some members of the banking syndicate that made nearly $60-million off the privatization of Hydro One. The evening was hosted by Mr. Chiarelli and Finance Minister Charles Sousa, the ministers who oversaw the sale.

Mr. Teliszewsky referred a request for comment to the Premier's office. Ms. Alimardani, Ms. Popovic and Ms. Choquette did not respond to requests for comment.

While Mr. Gerretsen was adamant he never saw any policy decisions made for fundraising reasons during his time in government, he told the committee he couldn't help but wonder if the money in politics had influenced his party.

When the Liberals were in opposition, for instance, the party needed bank loans to stay afloat: "I used to think, 'Okay. We all think we're pure and everybody thinks they're pure, but the next time something comes up with the banking industry and you're in government, are you going to be influenced by the way you were treated when you were in opposition?'"

In a recent interview, he said the cloud cast by fundraising was one of his least favourite aspects of politics.

"There's a perception that's there. Of course it's there," he said. "I wasn't a very good fundraiser. I didn't like doing the job."

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