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A firm run by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s top strategist and pollster was awarded $1.1-million from the caucus services budget, a pool of money subject to minimal disclosure rules. (MARTA IWANEK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A firm run by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s top strategist and pollster was awarded $1.1-million from the caucus services budget, a pool of money subject to minimal disclosure rules. (MARTA IWANEK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Party-friendly firms cash in on Ontario government’s caucus services budget Add to ...

The Ontario government funnelled at least $2.1-million in taxpayers’ money over the past two years to Liberal-connected consultants and advertising agencies.

Among the contracts were $1.1-million for a firm run by Premier Kathleen Wynne’s top strategist and pollster, $353,034 for the party’s chief advertising company and $383,232 for a data-mining outfit that has worked on the Liberals’ voter information database.

The funds came from the caucus services budget, a pool of money subject to minimal disclosure rules.

The caucus services funds are meant to pay for research, staff and office expenses for MPPs. But the government does not disclose exactly what services the companies that received contracts from the fund performed, and they are shielded from access to information requests. Contracts worth less than $50,000 from caucus services, including the names of the recipients, are kept entirely secret.

The only thing publicly revealed are the amounts for caucus service contracts over $50,000 and the names of the companies that received them. These are buried in the third volume of the province’s public accounts, released earlier this week.

All three parties have access to caucus funds proportionate to the number of seats they hold in the legislature. The Liberals get a little more than half the money. But companies connected to the other two parties also received a piece of the action.

More than $600,000 from the fund went to two companies connected to the NDP’s voter information database, for instance, and $67,433 went to a Progressive Conservative-friendly event management company.

The top recipient of government funds over the past two years was The Gandalf Group, a polling and market research company run by David Herle. Mr. Herle was Ms. Wynne’s chief strategist in the 2014 election campaign, and also works for federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. The Gandalf Group received $1,102,529 over the past two fiscal years: $779,082 in the year from April, 2013, to March, 2014, and $323,447 in the year ending March, 2015.

Toronto ad firm Bensimon Byrne got $353,034. Among other things, Bensimon created “Never Stop,” the 2013 ad that depicted Ms. Wynne running determinedly along country roads.

Aristotle International, a company that aggregates data on voters and has been reported to have helped build a Liberal database, got $383,232.

Other Liberal-connected firms that benefited include Blaney McMurtry Barristers and Solicitors, which received $156,941 (lawyer Jack B. Siegel of Blaney is general counsel to the party) and Entirely Digital, which hosts Liberal websites ($117,597.)

André Ghione, a staffer in the Liberal Caucus Service Bureau, said the caucus funds are used “for research, communication, and administrative services.” Mr. Ghione provided no specifics on what Liberal-connected firms did in exchange for the money, but said the “Never Stop” campaign was paid for out of Liberal Party funds, not government money.

“Any outside consultants or advisers were retained to provide support and advice to the Liberal Caucus in the roles as MPPs,” he wrote in an e-mail.

The second-largest recipient of funds, after Gandalf, was Salesforce.com, which received $476,508 last year. Salesforce runs the NDP voter database. Another company that helped with that database, Cloudware Connections Inc., pulled in $134,018. A further $63,393 went to Pollinator Films, a Hamilton company that has made ads for the NDP. “The Ontario New Democrat caucus services budget pays for a staff team, as well as contract services, that help our elected members do their job by providing communications, research and administrative support,” NDP spokesman Sam Pane said in a statement.

Golden Productions of Brampton, an event management company with testimonials from top Tories including former premier Ernie Eves on its website, received $67,433.

“No caucus funds are used for partisan activities,” Jamie Hofing, a spokesman for PC Leader Patrick Brown, said in a statement.

Christine Van Geyn, Ontario director of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation, said that without better disclosure rules, it is impossible to know if that is true. She said there may be legitimate reasons to hire polling companies and political consultants to advise MPPs – to help them craft policy, for instance – but that with the details of their work kept secret, the public cannot know if this is the case.

Also worrying, she said, was the lack of information on how the contracts were handed out.

“Are taxpayers actually going to be getting good value for money on these contracts? Or are these sweetheart, untendered deals that are going to friends and political allies?” she said in an interview. “We don’t know.”

Ms. Van Geyn said the contracts should be subject to higher levels of disclosure so it is possible to find out exactly what each firm did.

All three parties refused to answer when The Globe asked if they would favour making the caucus services budget more transparent.

In the case of some companies that received caucus services dollars, it is not clear which party they were working for. These include robocall company Solus VB ($61,928), food service and catering company Compass Group Canada ($317,389) and Perkins Services Inc., a mailing company ($112,420.)

A total of $4,051,189 over two years went for contracts under $50,000, for which the recipients were kept secret.

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