Conservative leadership candidate Kevin O'Leary says he won't attend any high-roller fundraisers for less than $50,000 an appearance and predicts he will rake in $2-million before the votes are counted in late May.
The Toronto businessman and reality TV star also told The Globe and Mail on Monday that he has been using private aircraft to fly to some campaign events but he is only expensing the standard price of an airline ticket.
"Yeah, I do use private planes as I do in business, but I can't charge that to the campaign. I can only charge the price of a ticket. Sometimes I have to be in four cities at once. Why wouldn't I use a private plane?"
Mr. O'Leary insisted that "you can't buy access to me," even though he acknowledged touting an Alberta-to-British Columbia pipeline after one of its key promoters helped drum up $100,000 for his campaign at a single event in Vancouver.
Mr. O'Leary told The Globe that he did not know Vancouver Canucks co-owner Francesco Aquilini was backing the First Nations-led Eagle Spirit pipeline when the B.C. business tycoon recently hosted a fundraiser with donations up to $1,500 each for the O'Leary federal leadership campaign.
But Mr. O'Leary said he later became a big booster of the proposed $14-billion oil-sands pipeline between Fort McMurray, Alta., and Prince Rupert, and even mentioned it during a Conservative leadership debate at the Manning Conference in Ottawa last Friday.
The pipeline would be an alternative to the Northern Gateway pipeline rejected by the Trudeau government.
"I heard about it from somebody in the room. I thought it was a great idea," he said. "If this is a model by which we can avoid the litigation and the court cases and we can move these projects forward, I am 100-per-cent behind it."
Mr. O'Leary said he would have preferred to the fund the leadership campaign out of his own pocket.
"You can't buy access to me. I am just raising money like every other candidate is," he said. "If I could have funded this myself, I would have. But I can't; it's against the rules."
The chief fundraisers for the O'Leary campaign are Toronto lawyer Perry Dellelce and Todd Halpern, a wine importer and vice-chairman of the Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation.
Their instructions are to take money from anyone who wants to invest in jobs, but Mr. O'Leary has set a minimum monetary figure before he will show up at a fundraiser.
"If you want to raise dollars from me because it's a good idea to grow Canada at 3 per cent, I will get you the right people in my organization and we'll set it up. I will show up and we'll raise as much money as we can," he said. "Your minimum has to be $50,000. If you can't raise me $50,000, I won't show up, so get to work."
Mr. O'Leary, whose money and TV fame have made him one of the perceived leadership front-runners, was the last entry into the race, forcing him to beat the drums for money to catch up with his main challengers in the Conservative contest.
The latest fundraising figures released by Elections Canada on Jan. 31 showed Conservative leadership hopeful Maxime Bernier had raked in almost $530,000 in the last quarter of 2016, putting him well ahead of his rivals.
Kellie Leitch was in second place, with $322,000 raised in the quarter, followed by Andrew Scheer with $297,000. The data do not include totals for Mr. O'Leary, who entered the race on Jan. 18.
Mr. O'Leary said he raised $187,000 in the first 21 hours of his announcement, which he attributed to his large social media following and business connections.
Mr. O'Leary, who spends his winters in Florida and also owns a home in Boston, said he does not believe he asked any Canadian snowbirds to contribute to his campaign.
"When you are doing $1,550 at a time you want to have a high yield, you want everybody in the room to be able to contribute, so I am not doing much in the U.S. in terms of fundraising. I don't think I have raised anything in the U.S."
Many of the candidates' fundraisers are by invitation-only and there is no easy way of knowing who exactly is donating money until months from now when quarterly figures are released by Elections Canada.
Mr. O'Leary said he does not believe in publicizing private fundraisers even though Conservative MPs have – as recently as last Thursday – criticized Liberal Party cash-for-access fundraisers at the homes of wealthy Canadians.
"If it is in someone's personal home, I am not going to publicize it. They invite friends or whatever to raise dollars. I don't think I would do that," Mr. O'Leary said.
After a three-month series of Globe stories on Liberal cash-for-access events, Mr. Trudeau promised last month to bring in legislation require all fundraisers, including for leadership campaigns, to be conducted in publicly available spaces rather than private homes or clubs.