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Sousa defends secret Liberal fundraiser as ‘part of democratic process’

Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa says there was no quid pro quo regarding the fundraiser and the lucrative deal for the banks on the initial public offering of Hydro One.

FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Finance Minister Charles Sousa says he is not concerned about the propriety of a secret $7,500-a-plate fundraiser last year in which the banks that profited from the privatization of Hydro One helped him raise about $165,000 for the Liberals' campaign war chest.

Such activities are just "part of the democratic process," Mr. Sousa insisted.

"It's not something that I have been concerned about. I make myself accessible to all stakeholders. I do a number of outreach opportunities," he said on Wednesday, before heading into a cabinet meeting, when asked about the optics of the fundraiser.

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Asked if there was a quid pro quo regarding the fundraiser and the lucrative deal for the banks on the initial public offering of Hydro One, Mr. Sousa replied: "No."

As The Globe and Mail first revealed Tuesday, the Bank of Nova Scotia, one of the lead underwriters for the Hydro One privatization, promoted a fundraiser on Monday, Dec. 7, 2015, for Mr. Sousa and Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli. Mr. Sousa and Mr. Chiarelli were the two ministers in charge of the IPO.

E-mails promoting the event explicitly mentioned Hydro One. They indicated that at least 22 people attended the event, including executives representing several financial services firms that were part of the Hydro One syndicate, including the Royal Bank of Canada, the Toronto-Dominion Bank, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Goldman Sachs, Barclays and Raymond James.

The revelation comes amid a mounting furor over Ontario's lax campaign finance rules. Earlier this month, The Globe revealed two other secret fundraising events involving Mr. Chiarelli, Premier Kathleen Wynne and Ms. Wynne's chief of staff, Andrew Bevan. Those events, promoted by lobbying firm Sussex Strategy Group, cost $6,000 and $5,000 a plate and were meant to attract energy-industry insiders who wanted one-on-one access to the politicians.

Then, on Tuesday, the Toronto Star revealed that cabinet ministers have fundraising quotas up to $500,000 annually.

Ms. Wynne pledged on Tuesday to toughen the rules, including "transitioning away from corporate and union donations." She gave no specifics and said the changes will probably not be in place before the next election, in 2018.

Currently, corporations and unions are allowed to donate to Ontario politicians – even though they are banned from doing so federally. The current limit on donations is a generous $9,975, and various loopholes allow corporations and unions to give multiple times that amount, meaning that the wealthiest can sometimes contribute more than $100,000 in a given year.

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When asked about the Premier's promised changes, Mr. Sousa heaved a sigh. "I respect the democratic process. I have participated in many fundraisers since I first got elected and even before. And, you know, that's how it works," he said. "We'll have those discussions. I really haven't paid much attention to it … it's not my priority. I don't worry about fundraising."

He added: "There's always going to be some form of fundraising. It's how it operates on any level of government."

Mr. Chiarelli, however, conceded that there is a "perception" that big-ticket fundraisers amount to selling access. "The perception is you're meeting with people and it's a larger amount [of money], so they're going to get more special treatment. That's not the fact, but I think that has to be addressed," he said.

The minister insisted that there was no connection between the Hydro One IPO and the fundraiser in which he received money from the banks that ran the IPO.

"There's no direct relationship there in any way, shape or form. We have big budgets for infrastructure funding, and the construction industry says 'that's great.' We have a big IPO and there's business for the banks and they say 'it's great,' " he said. "There's no specific direct connection to any action, reaction on the part of either the banks or on the part of any minister with respect to fundraising."

Asked if the Liberals leaned on the banks involved in the IPO to give contributions, Mr. Chiarelli said: "I don't speak directly in terms of fundraising or solicitation in any way, shape or form, but I would be very surprised if there was."

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Mr. Chiarelli said he does "perhaps four" small-scale, big-ticket fundraisers every year.

He added that he is in favour of campaign finance reform, including lower donation limits.

"I don't, as a minister, make decisions based on contributions," he said. "I have many more meetings with stakeholders who have never made contributions, and they're all treated the same."

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