Finance Minister Bill Morneau held a private Liberal Party fundraiser attended by business executives at the waterfront mansion of a mining tycoon turned land developer in Halifax last week in what appears to be a direct violation of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's rules against preferential access for financial donors.
Mr. Morneau, who is designing the 2017 budget, controls the purse strings for billions of dollars of infrastructure cash and other major funding initiatives, including a possible new container terminal and redevelopment of federal port lands in Halifax.
Sources say about 15 people attended the $1,500 a person Liberal Laurier Club event at the home of Fred George, a former gold and silver mining magnate who has branched out into land development. Other donors were prominent Nova Scotia property developers Danny Chedrawe, president of Westwood Developments, Jim Spatz, chairman and chief executive of SouthWest Properties, and Philip Jenkins, vice-president of RBC Securities.
Mr. George is a business partner in a hotel complex with Mr. Spatz, who was recently appointed to the board of directors of the Halifax Port Authority on the advice of federal Treasury Board President Scott Brison, the Liberals' political power broker for Nova Scotia.
In mandate instructions to his cabinet ministers last year, Mr. Trudeau laid down strict conflict of interest rules for dealing with lobbyists and fundraising.
"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 document stated.
The rules also said there should be "no singling out, or appearance of singling out, of individuals or organizations as targets of political fundraising."
Mr. Morneau refused to answer questions from The Globe and Mail about the high-roller fundraiser when pressed for details after a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
Later, Mr. Morneau's communications director, Daniel Lauzon, denied any impropriety was at play here, describing the Oct. 13 fundraising event as one any Canadian could have attended.
"First, invitations were sent out broadly by volunteers and staff, and the event had its own Web page. Anyone who purchased a ticket could attend. This was an open event," he said.
Information about the event, organized by the party's Laurier Club, is not readily available in Internet searches, which suggests the Liberals were trying to limit who could learn about it. The Laurier Club is the elite fundraising arm of the Liberal Party that requires donors to contribute $1,500 with the promise of exclusive access to "prominent members of the Liberal Party."
"The bottom line is that Canadians would absolutely see it as selling access to ministers," Conservative MP Candice Bergen told The Globe. "It contradicts Trudeau's own letters to his cabinet."
Liberal spokesman Braeden Caley would not reveal the names of the people who attended the event, but said The Globe can peruse the list of donors that is publicly disclosed each fiscal quarter by Elections Canada.
Mr. Morneau's event is the kind of fundraising that Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson has urged Parliament to crack down on. In June, she called for tougher fundraising laws that would address cases of ministers selling access for party donations.
"Fundraising activities in which a relatively small number of attendees, in exchange for the price of admission to an event, gain the opportunity to meet a featured minister or party leader have been characterized as 'selling access.' This situation is not directly addressed in the act," Ms. Dawson stated in her annual report.
For years, political parties have used their brightest stars to sell tickets to fundraising dinners and other events across the country. But attention has recently focused on a trend toward more intimate events, with a smaller number of guests that guarantee participants an opportunity to bend the ear of a powerful political figure.
Recent examples cited in Ms. Dawson's report include a December, 2015, fundraising letter from Mr. Morneau that offered a chance to win a dinner with the minister in exchange for a donation. The offer was later cancelled. In the same month, Liberal donors were given a chance to "meet and mingle" with cabinet ministers and Liberal MPs at a holiday caucus dinner.
Another case involved a fundraising e-mail that offered a chance to win a trip to Washington for events during Mr. Trudeau's visit. The fourth case involved a fundraiser hosted by a Toronto law firm that featured Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.