A lobbyist for gambling interests encouraged executives involved in the industry to pay $500 to attend a federal Conservative fundraiser so that they can bend the ear of an Ontario provincial cabinet minister who will play a role in gambling regulation.
But after The Globe and Mail asked questions about that, the provincial minister, Peter Bethlenfalvy, said Thursday evening that he won’t be able to make it to the Friday evening fundraiser after all.
The fundraiser at Toronto’s Albany Club is for Barry O’Brien, the Conservative candidate running in this fall’s election in the Etobicoke-Lakeshore riding.
But the marquee speaker was supposed to be Mr. Bethlenfalvy, who is Treasury Board President and a senior figure in Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government.
The minister’s attendance at the fundraiser would not have broken any rules, but the practice of giving well-heeled donors special access to cabinet members at exclusive events has come under fire.
Troy Ross, a lobbyist who represents three major offshore internet-gambling interests, had contacted people involved in the gambling industry to encourage them to attend the $500-a-head event, noting it offers a chance to meet a politician who will have a say over the rules that will govern their business.
“The chair of the Treasury Board will be an important voice about the future of gambling in Ontario, so I hope you can join us at this event,” he wrote in one e-mail to a group of people involved in the gambling industry. He described Mr. O’Brien as “an old friend.”
The pitch came from a lobbyist who played a role in pushing Mr. Ford’s Ontario government to support a sea change in internet-gambling regulations. Mr. Ross is registered to lobby four senior ministers in Mr. Ford’s government – including Mr. Bethlenfalvy’s office – on that issue.
Reached by telephone, Mr. Ross said he did not organize the fundraiser, but is only attending and encouraged others to do the same. “There is a fundraiser, and I’ve just sent that along to other folks and suggested that they may want to attend,” Mr. Ross said, before saying he had to go to board a flight.
Mr. O’Brien did not respond to voice-mails, but did answer an e-mail by saying he had no time to speak because had to board a flight, and referring questions to communications adviser Sherri Haigh. Ms. Haigh said in an e-mail: “This event follows all the fundraising rules that are in place by Elections Canada.”
A half-hour after Ms. Haigh’s e-mail, Mr. Bethlenfalvy’s press secretary, Hayden Kenez, sent a one-sentence e-mail saying: “Peter Bethlenfalvy is not able to attend this event.” Mr. Kenez did not reply to follow-up telephone messages and responded to e-mails by repeating the same sentence. The notice for the fundraiser that touted Mr. Bethlenfalvy as a featured speaker was still on the website of the Etobicoke-Lakeshore Conservative Association at that point.
The practice of sending cabinet ministers to speak at fundraisers has been controversial at both federal and provincial levels.
A storm over “cash-for-access” fundraisers prompted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to bar ministers from going to small events at private homes, and bar lobbyists from buying tickets for an event that a target of their lobbying will attend.
In Ontario, the Liberals under former premier Kathleen Wynne had banned provincial ministers, MPPs and senior political staff from attending political fundraisers, but Mr. Ford’s government repealed the ban last year.
Mr. O’Brien’s fundraiser isn’t a case where that now-repealed ban would have applied, since Mr. Bethlenfalvy’s appearance is not at an event to raise money for the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, but rather for a candidate for Andrew Scheer’s federal party.
Another event last week featured Ontario Energy Minister Greg Rickford as the marquee attendee at a fundraiser for federal Conservative candidate Krystina Waler, held at the Toronto home of an energy company executive, Paul Grod.
The Ford government has signalled it favours loosening several kinds of gambling restrictions. In April, Finance Minister Vic Fedeli signalled in his first budget that the Ontario government plans to legalize internet gambling.
That came after a lobbying effort in which internet-gambling interests hired consultants with new firms with Tory ties: Loyalist Public Affairs, whose founding partner, Chris Froggatt, was vice-chair of Mr. Ford’s campaign; and Rubicon Strategy Inc., whose managing partner, Kory Teneycke, was Mr. Ford’s campaign manager.
Rubicon vice-president Patrick Harris worked with Mr. Ross to represent the Canadian Online Gaming Alliance, a trade association set up by Mr. Ross to promote the interests of three major offshore internet-gambling firms officially based in the tax havens of Gibraltar or the Isle of Man.