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Politics Elections commissioner urged to investigate cash-for-access allegations

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Dec. 12, 2016

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Federal opposition parties have asked the commissioner of Canada Elections to investigate allegations that members of Canada's Chinese community have been requested to pay as much as $5,000 to attend fundraising dinners with the Prime Minister – amounts that exceed federal contribution limits.

Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose and Alexandre Boulerice, the ethics critic for the NDP, both contacted the commissioner on Thursday after The Globe and Mail reported that business people have been solicited to hand over the large sums to attend an event with Justin Trudeau.

"The more we hear about these cash-for-access fundraisers, the more concerning they become. This now goes beyond asking questions in the House or having the Ethics and Lobbying Commissioners look into it," Ms. Ambrose said. "The commissioner of Canada Elections needs to look into these claims as soon as possible and Prime Minister Trudeau must stop these cash-for-access schemes, which have brought his office into disrepute."

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Two business people have told The Globe that they were invited to attend an event in May at the home of Benson Wong, the chair of the Chinese Business Chamber of Canada, at which Mr. Trudeau was the featured guest. One of them said she was asked to pay $4,500 and the other said he was told by a Chinese-Canadian association that the price would be $5,000. Neither accepted the offer.

The sums mentioned exceed the legal limits for donations by an individual to a federal political party, which this year is set at $1,525. Neither of the invitees who spoke to The Globe knew why the cost of entry was so high.

The allegations come as Mr. Trudeau and his party have been under fire for the cash-for-access events that are being used to stoke Liberal coffers in preparation for the next election, and after Mary Dawson, the Ethics Commissioner, said she planned to interview Mr. Trudeau about the fundraisers.

A Liberal spokeswoman said in an e-mail on Thursday that the party complies with the rules for federal political fundraising and takes great care to ensure that supporters have not made contributions that exceed the federal donation caps.

"If any such amount is received, it would be reimbursed," Marjolaine Provost said. "The party has no evidence that this took place with regard to this event, and any unacceptable activity of this nature would not be tolerated by the Liberal Party of Canada. The Liberal Party of Canada does not ask for donations above the legal limit in any instance, and we set clear expectations with event volunteers that all of Elections Canada's strict federal political fundraising rules are followed at all times."

The Liberal Party did not respond when asked whether Mr. Wong would be allowed to play host to another fundraiser.

Under Canada's Elections Act, political parties and candidates that accept donations in excess of the legal limits have 30 days after they become aware of the contravention to return the money to the contributor or, if that is not possible, to turn the excess over to the Chief Electoral Officer, who will forward it to the Receiver General. Those who flout the rules are subject to a range of penalties including both fines and jail sentences.

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Mr. Boulerice said the Liberals have been saying for weeks that they have respected all federal fundraising laws but that is not true if donations were made in excess of the legal limits.

"I wrote an e-mail [to the commissioner of Canada Elections] asking for a full investigation based on [The Globe's] article of this morning and the allegation that somebody attending those fundraising events paid far more than the legal limit to be there," Mr. Boulerice said in a telephone interview. "We want to know where did this money go? Who benefited from it, and was somebody involved in the PMO? And who is responsible for that scheme and asking for that amount of money?"

Ms. Ambrose wrote in her letter to the commissioner that the fundraising events, which occur in "intimate settings," are designed to allow participants to communicate with the Prime Minister on matters related to legislative, regulatory and policy changes, and other issues that could yield financial benefits.

In the past year, Mr. Trudeau has attended at least three of the events at the homes of Chinese business leaders where he has dined with wealthy and influential members of the community, some of whom were seeking approval for business deals while others have ties to China's ruling Communist Party.

When The Globe called Mr. Wong to ask him about the allegations that people were required to donate more than allowed by law to attend a fundraising dinner with Mr. Trudeau at his home, he directed questions to the Prime Minister's Office.

Elizabeth May, Green Party Leader, said she would be skeptical of any claim that the Liberals took donations in excess of the legal limit.

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But "what the Liberals are misunderstanding is that cash-for-access and the whole concept strikes the average Canadian as fishy, even if all the rules are being obeyed," Ms. May said. And "the question is, what does an intermediary get for providing access to the Prime Minister? If you create the commodity of access to elected people, you create a culture where this kind of thing can happen."

Editor’s note: An earlier digital version of this article incorrectly said that Elections Canada was urged to investigate cash-for-access allegations. In fact, it was the commissioner of Canada Elections, an independent officer responsible for ensuring political groups uphold their obligations under the Canada Elections Act. Elections Canada runs the elections. This version has been corrected.
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