Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was the top draw at a $1,500 Liberal Party cash-for-access fundraiser at the mansion of a wealthy Chinese-Canadian business executive in May. One of the guests at the event was a well-heeled donor who was seeking Ottawa's final approval to begin operating a new bank aimed at Canada's Chinese community.
The Globe and Mail has learned that wealthy Chinese businessman Zhang Bin who, with a partner, donated $1-million to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation and the University of Montreal Faculty of Law weeks after the fundraiser, also attended the event. Mr. Zhang is a political adviser to the Chinese government in Beijing and a senior apparatchik in the network of Chinese state promotional activities around the world.
Chinese Business Chamber of Commerce chair Benson Wong played host to Mr. Trudeau and 32 other people at his Toronto home. Among the donors was insurance tycoon Shenglin Xian, the founder of Wealth One Bank of Canada, and several Chinese billionaires.
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At the time, Mr. Xian, president of Toronto-based Shenglin Financial Group Inc., was waiting for final approval from federal bank regulators for his Schedule 1 bank to start business in Canada. Schedule 1 banks are domestic, not foreign, and authorized to accept deposits in Canada.
Attending the fundraiser appears to breach the ethical rules laid down by Mr. Trudeau after he took office. These "Open and Accountable Government" rules state "there should be no preferential access, or appearance of preferential access" in exchange for political donations.
The fundraiser also appears to violate Liberal Party guidelines that require party officials to ban anyone from attending a fundraiser if they have direct business interests before the government.
The Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions (OSFI), which reports to Parliament through Finance Minister Bill Morneau, gave the final okay for Wealth One to launch as a federally chartered domestic bank on July 19 with online banking services supported by offices in Toronto and Vancouver.
Canada's banking watchdog assesses applications for new banks in a multistage process that includes consultation with the Finance Department.
Liberal Party spokesman Braeden Caley played down the presence of Mr. Xian at the elite Trudeau fundraiser, and maintained Wealth One's application was not discussed.
"As we have been clear, fundraising events are partisan functions where there is not discussion of official government business. Any individual who wishes to initiate a discussion on such matters is immediately redirected to instead make an appointment with the relevant office," Mr. Caley said in an e-mail to The Globe. "As a political party, the Liberal Party of Canada is not aware of proposals to government – and any such information sharing would be inappropriate."
Mr. Caley referred The Globe to an official in Mr. Morneau's office. The official said Wealth One got tentative approval with letters of patent from Conservative finance minister Joe Oliver on July 22, 2015. OSFI did not seek or require Mr. Morneau's July 19, 2016, approval, the official said.
Mr. Xian, who emigrated from China to Canada in 1990 and quickly became one of the country's top insurance agents, did not respond to repeated attempts from The Globe for comment.
NDP MP Charlie Angus said the Prime Minister had "really stepped over the line" and "set a low bar" by attending the private fundraiser.
"I find this particular case very troubling because this is a person who has a direct financial interest, paid money, had access to the Prime Minister and whether business was discussed is beside the point," Mr. Angus told The Globe.
Just weeks after the May fundraiser, the Trudeau Foundation and the university announced that Mr. Zhang, who is also president of the China Cultural Industry Association, and another wealthy Chinese businessman, Niu Gensheng, would donate $1-million to the University of Montreal and the Trudeau Foundation "to honour the memory and leadership" of the former prime minister, who opened diplomatic relations with China in 1970. Of the $1-million endowment, $200,000 went to the Trudeau Foundation, $50,000 will pay for the statue of the elder Mr. Trudeau, and $750,000 will fund University of Montreal Faculty of Law scholarships, which include grants for Quebec students to visit China.
The China Cultural Industry Association, which is supervised and regulated by two Chinese state ministries, aims to build international ties for Beijing.
There is no evidence Mr. Zhang paid to attend the fundraiser, and as a foreign citizen, he cannot make federal political donations. Mr. Niu was not at the event.
Another Chinese billionaire, Ted Jiancheng Zhou, a real estate developer who now lives in Canada, also paid $1,500 to attend the private Trudeau event, as did Jenny Qi, a movie actress, real estate investor and president of the Canada Confederation of Shenzhen Associations. Bob Guo, the chief executive officer of Goldenmount Capital International, was at the fundraiser, but The Globe was unable to determine if he paid the $1,500-per-person ticket price.
Photographs from the May 19 fundraiser in Mr. Wong's home show Mr. Trudeau speaking to the group with Canadian and Chinese flags in the background. Among the guests was Liu Meng, chairman of the Yangtze River International Chamber of Commerce, which is opening a branch in Canada.
Mr. Liu, a member of China's Communist Party, has been praised by China's state media for "seeking out overseas delegates for future business co-operation … and to invest abroad and expand into the global market."
A photo of Mr. Liu beside the Prime Minister appeared in the Yangtze River Network, a Chinese-run government media outlet based in Wuhan. The Liberal Party said Mr. Liu did not make any personal donations.
"It is our understanding that Liu Meng attended as a friend and guest of the volunteer in whose home the event was hosted, and that he made no political contribution in association with his attendance that evening," Mr. Caley said.
Mr. Trudeau was also photographed with Xiangton Zhao, a multimillionaire from China focused on property investment and development. There is no record of Mr. Zhao making a donation.
Some of the investors in Wealth One have close ties to China's Communist regime, including bank director Yuansheng Ou Yang, an owner of a string of Yuan Ming supermarkets in Canada and businesses in China's Fujian province.
His biography on the Wealth One website says that before he immigrated to Canada in 1990, Mr. Ou Yang was a member of the National People's Congress, which is China's legislature, and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a political advisory board for China's leaders.
Another director is Mao Hua Chen, a wealthy Vancouver real estate developer, who along with his wife, Mingyan Lin, are listed as key investors in Wealth One. The couple also operate the North America Investment and Trade Promotion Association, which pushes for close economic ties between Canada, China and the United States.
The Prime Minister has come under fire for cash-for-access fundraisers at homes or hotels where Canadians pay up to $1,525 to rub shoulders with Liberal ministers in charge of major spending and policy decisions.
Last Tuesday, Liberal MPs voted down a Conservative Party motion backed by the New Democrats that would have transferred the Open and Accountable rules on lobbying and fundraising to Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson. This would have given Ms. Dawson's office the legal power to crack down on such events.
Ms. Dawson has called the cash-for-access system "not very savoury," while federal Lobbying Commissioner Karen Shepherd has launched an investigation into the practice after Globe articles revealed that business executives with financial interests before the government were buying tickets to attend events with senior ministers.
"During their first year in office, the Liberals have held more than 80 cash-for-access fundraising events featuring lobbyists, lawyers and important stakeholder groups currently doing business with the Government of Canada," Conservative MP Blaine Calkins said.
The Liberal Party said in a Nov. 4 letter to all cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries that it takes stringent steps to weed people out of fundraisers if they have direct business dealings with the government.