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Politics Opposition accuses Liberals of maintaining ‘cash-for-access’ loopholes in spite of new rules

The Trudeau government faced accusations Monday of failing to deliver on pledges to clean up the Liberal Party’s fundraising practices after The Globe and Mail reported numerous cases of lobbyists attending fundraisers, including cases that violated the party’s own rules.

Opposition members accused the government of breaking their promises and creating loopholes and exceptions for themselves. “They made loopholes to allow the biggest money in the door from anybody they want, including lobbyists who are lobbying their government,” NDP MP Nathan Cullen said after Question Period. “I don’t understand how they think Canadians are going to buy it. It’s still taking cash-for-access money. The status quo remains.”

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The Liberal government defended its policies in the House as MPs returned to Ottawa after the summer recess.

“We are proud to be the party that’s already disclosing more information about their fundraisers," Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould said in response to questions from Conservative MPs about The Globe’s findings.

The Globe’s review focused on the first 72 fundraisers that have taken place since early 2017 under new rules set by the party. Those rules were in response to criticism that the party was allowing “cash-for-access” events in which individuals could interact with the Prime Minister or a cabinet minister at small gatherings in exchange for a $1,500 donation to the Liberal Party.

Those new rules were outlined in a November, 2016, letter from the Liberal Party to cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries that highlighted Mr. Trudeau’s “open and accountable government” pledge, which states that “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 letter states that the party would review the guest list for all fundraising events to determine whether any individuals are registered lobbyists with active files associated with the relevant department, “and, if necessary, take steps so that the individual does not attend the event.”

The letter makes no mention of exceptions. However, in practice, the party is applying this policy only in relation to fundraisers that require a specific donation for entry, such as a $200 dinner. The Globe review found nearly a dozen cases in which that specific rule was not enforced, which the party acknowledged and said was primarily attributable to individuals who registered at the last minute for an event.

The party has decided that this screening is not required for “donor appreciation events,” such as Laurier Club fundraisers that are restricted to individuals who have donated $1,500 to the party, which is just shy of the $1,575 maximum allowable contribution. Of the 72 fundraisers, 32 were Laurier Club events and about 60 per cent of Laurier Club events had at least one lobbyist in attendance.

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“These are not exceptions. These are regularly occurring violations of the Prime Minister’s own promises and commitments to get rid of the reality or the appearance of cash for access,” Conservative MP Peter Kent said.

“When a lobbyist can get up and close and [have] face time over a cocktail with a minister or the prime minister or a powerful decision-maker in the PMO, that is access that the ordinary citizen with an interest in public policy would not have.”

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch and an adjunct professor of political science and law at the University of Ottawa, said the Liberal Party’s two sets of rules depending on whether or not a lobbyist has donated the maximum allowed amounts to “cash for access” to government officials and violates the Prime Minister’s own code of conduct for cabinet ministers.

Mr. Conacher said he will be writing to the federal Commissioner of Lobbying and the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner requesting that they investigate the Liberal Party’s policy with respect to allowing lobbyists to attend party fundraisers.

The Liberal government’s Bill C-50 will take effect in December and it will require all parties to disclose details of fundraisers in the way the Liberals have been doing since early 2017.

Liberal Party spokesperson Braeden Caley said Liberal volunteers work hard to prevent perceptions of conflict of interest, but he also challenged the other parties to start disclosing their fundraising details.

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