Federal lobbying commissioner Karen Shepherd says she is investigating what she called the governing Liberals' "pay-for-access" fundraisers to determine whether senior Trudeau cabinet ministers have breached the Lobbying Act.
The probe began in response to stories in The Globe and Mail that revealed wealthy donors are paying as much as $1,500 per ticket for private time with senior cabinet ministers in charge of major spending and policy decisions.
"We are seeing in the media that this is an issue potentially creating real or apparent conflict of interest, which is why I am looking into it," Ms. Shepherd told the Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics on Thursday. "Obviously, placing the public office holder in a conflict of interest is something that would be a potential breach of the [Lobbying] Act."
The act requires corporate executives or their lobbyists to register each time they make a representation to a federal cabinet minister. Ms. Shepherd said this includes organizing fundraisers or selling tickets to these events. Ministers would be in potential breach of the law if they attended these meetings without registering that they were lobbied.
Ethics commissioner Mary Dawson also added her voice to growing concerns that the Liberals' cash-for-access fundraisers appear to violate the "Open and Accountable Government" rules Prime Minister Justin Trudeau laid down shortly after taking office. Those rules state "there should be no preferential access or appearance of preferential access" in exchange for political donations.
Ms. Dawson on Thursday called the fundraisers "unsavoury," telling reporters: "One wonders whether people are getting unfair access."
Ms. Shepherd said she will probe the role of Apotex Inc. chairman Barry Sherman in helping organize and sell $500 tickets for an elite Liberal Party fundraiser on Nov. 7 at the home of Toronto philanthropist Nancy Pencer and funeral home executive Michael Benjamin. Finance Minister Bill Morneau is scheduled to be the prize guest at the exclusive event.
The lobbying commissioner usually does not comment on specific cases, but Ms. Shepherd noted The Globe had already reported that the generic drug manufacturer's chief lobbyist, John Duffy, has lobbied the Finance Department three times in the past six months. The advocacy group Democracy Watch also filed a formal complaint about the fundraiser, she said.
"Under the act, I have the ability to look into a matter or as a result of a complaint. In the current situation with Apotex, it is quite public," she said.
Apotex is involved in high-level lobbying in Ottawa. The company has also made direct representations to Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland and Health Minister Jane Philpott.
Apotex spokesman Elie Betito told The Globe on Tuesday that the Nov. 7 "fundraising event is not part of Apotex's program of government relations" but simply a private undertaking by Mr. Sherman, who is one of the largest shareholders in the pharmaceutical giant.
Apotex is suing the federal government for $500-million for banning the company's drug imports from India. Mr. Morneau sits on the federal cabinet committee on litigation management, which deals with lawsuits against Ottawa.
The Globe has found at least 20 exclusive Liberal Party fundraisers that featured key ministers and were held at private homes, hotels or other venues. The main draws are Mr. Morneau, Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi, Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly and Mr. Bains.
The Liberal Party has refused to say who attended or what was discussed, but Ms. Shepherd said her office will seek that information.
"My investigators will do everything they need to do to provide me with a complete picture of the situation so that I can make an assessment as to whether a breach of the code has actually occurred," she said.
Ms. Shepherd said she would also "look into" whether Nova Scotia property developer Jim Spatz, whom the Liberals named to the Halifax Port Authority, was in a potential breach of the Lobbying Act when he paid $1,500 to attend a Morneau fundraiser on Oct. 13 at the mansion of Halifax mining tycoon-turned land developer Fred George. The port authority is considering whether to seek $1-billion from Ottawa for a new port in Dartmouth that would free up vast tracts of land in Halifax for development.
In the Commons, opposition MPs called on the government to ban the special access fundraisers, especially in light of the lobbying commissioner's investigation.
"The Prime Minister knows this is wrong. Everybody knows this is wrong. It's damaging the integrity of his office," Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose said.
Government House Leader Bardish Chagger read from a statement repeating what the government has said since The Globe began reporting on the fundraisers: "Federal politics is subject to some of the strictest political financing legislation in the country and we fully complied with the rules."
The ethics commissioner told reporters on Thursday that the current conflict-of-interest law prevents her from making a finding on whether the cash-for-access fundraisers are improper. She said the Prime Minister's tough new ethics rules should be included in the Conflict of Interest Act.
Mr. Trudeau has chosen not to assign the enforcement of his new rules to an independent watchdog. Instead the Open and Accountable Government document is the responsibility of the Privy Council Office, which reports to the prime minister.