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Liberals avoid scrutiny for contentious cash-for-access fundraisers

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons, October 19, 2016.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has handed the duty of enforcing new rules for lobbying and political fundraisers to a department that directly reports to him, meaning that exclusive Liberal Party fundraisers with senior cabinet ministers as the prize attraction escape the scrutiny of the ethics commissioner.

The Liberals have come under fire in recent days after The Globe and Mail reported on a cash-for-access fundraising system that uses cabinet members to draw big donations. This practice appears to violate rules Mr. Trudeau put in place last year.

The Office of Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson told The Globe on Thursday that Ms. Dawson cannot pass judgment on whether Mr. Trudeau's "Open and Accountable Government" rules were breached because he gave that mandate to the Privy Council Office, the senior bureaucracy that serves the Prime Minister's Office.

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Related: Morneau fundraiser one in list of Liberal cash-for-access events

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Related: Ontario Liberals held more than 90 cash-for-access fundraisers in two-year span

In a later TV interview she noted that the Trudeau fundraising rules are "much more stringent" than what is in the Conflict of Interest Act, which she enforces as an independent watchdog agency. She said those rules should be added to the federal ethics law so she can crack down on special-access fundraisers.

"There's a whole group of rules in the Prime Minister's accountability rules that could be nicely put into the act," she told CTV's Power Play.

The "Open and Accountable Government" document forbids cabinet ministers to attend cash-for-access fundraisers. "There should be no preferential access to government, or appearance of preferential access, accorded to individuals or organizations because they have made financial contributions to politicians and political parties," the rules state.

Opposition MPs say the Trudeau rules are meaningless unless an independent body can enforce them.

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"To put rules in place and say they should be administered by someone connected with the top of our government executive connected to the Prime Minister's Office is simply not satisfactory," NDP House Leader Murray Rankin said. "The compliance mechanism is entirely lacking. When you make rules, you have to find ways to make those rules complied with."

The style of fundraising also known as "pay-to-play" access has been controversial this year at the provincial level. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne unveiled campaign finance reforms after The Globe revealed corporations and lobbyists paid thousands of dollars for exclusive access to Ms. Wynne and members of her cabinet. B.C. Premier Christy Clark faced complaints for attending similar events.

The Globe found at least 20 instances this year where the Trudeau Liberals are asking Canadians to pay as much as $1,500 to spent time at private residences, hotels or other venues with senior ministers who responsible for major spending and policy decisions. The prize guests at these events include Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains and Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly.

Mr. Morneau has been holding elite fundraisers in private homes of wealthy Canadians in cities where he is holding pre-budget consultations with the public. Last Thursday, he was the guest at a $1,500 ticket fundraiser at the mansion of a Halifax mining magnate, attended by about 15 corporate executives. The next day he held public consultations.

"Like every other Member of Parliament, I am actively involved in fundraiser activities for my party," he told reporters on Thursday. "Invitations are sent to hundreds of people and they are in fact open."

The Liberals insist these events are not exclusive. In the House of Commons, Government House leader Bardish Chagger said the Halifax fundraiser "was open, and anyone who purchased a ticket was welcome to attend."

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"Come on, that is ridiculous," Conservative MP Candice Bergen told The Globe. "It's open to everyone who can pay $1,500."

She said it was "clear the Minister of Finance was charging a price and then giving special access to individuals who could benefit from that access. It is wrong."

Throughout this controversy, the Liberals have avoided any mention of the Trudeau rules they once championed, instead dwelling on how their behaviour is in line with provisions of the elections law that cover donation limits.

Reading from a prepared statement, Ms. Chagger told MPs: "Federal politics is subject to some of the strictest financing legislation and regulations in the country. The party fully complies with the Elections Act in all cases. These are the rules that were put in place by the previous government."

A Liberal Party spokesman refused a request from The Globe to provide a list of all ministerial fundraisers the governing party has held this year, saying Canadians can read that in party financial returns that are posted quarterly on Elections Canada's website. He said the Conservative Party did the same thing in government.

When he unveiled the Open and Accountable Government rulebook on Nov. 27, 2015, Mr. Trudeau promised "real change – in both what we do and how we do it" and told his ministers they "must uphold the highest standards of honesty and impartiality," and cautioned "both the performance of your official duties and the arrangement of your private affairs should bear the closest public scrutiny. This is an obligation that is not fully discharged by simply acting within the law."

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