Athabasca University made more than $10,000 in illegal donations to the provincial Conservatives in two years.

University board chair Barry Walker said Athabasca made the donations because it was "trying to develop a relationship with the government at the time, trying to further our needs as far as funding and the like."

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CBC reporter Charles Rusnell speaks with Athabasca University board chair Barry Walker. (CBC)

"It is public knowledge that probably 35 to 40 per cent of our entire funding comes from the government," Walker said.

Walker said university officials who made the donations didn’t know it was wrong.

"I believe that people made an honest mistake," Walker said. "They did it in good faith.  The moment we found out it was illegal, we stopped the practice."

But Athabasca University political scientist Jay Smith said it was blatant pork-barrel politics and if officials did not know it was illegal, they should have at least recognized it was morally wrong.

"You should know right from wrong," he said. "It is clearly wrong to use public money for private political purposes.

"There has to be a clear distinction (between) what is in the public interest and what is in the private interest of a political party," Smith said. "Those are clear and distinguishable and if you can’t make out the difference, then you should not be an executive and you should not be on a public board. Period."

Board members, faculty attended Tory fundraisers

Documents obtained by CBC News through Freedom of Information show that between 2006 and 2008, the university spent $10,675 on Conservative fundraising events. Nothing in the documents shows any support for other parties.

Board members, executives and even faculty variously attended premiers’ dinners in Edmonton, Calgary and Athabasca, and golf tournaments for Athabasca-Redwater MLA Jeff Johnson and former MLA Mike Cardinal. They also attended two annual Lobster Boil fundraisers in Edmonton for former Advanced Education Minister Dave Hancock.

The university ended its practice of donating to the Tories in October 2008, establishing a policy banning them. Walker said the local Athabasca-Redwater PC Association has reimbursed the university, but he doesn’t know if the provincial party has refunded the thousands of dollars it received.

University official is Tory riding president

Carol Lund is head of the university’s secretariat. As such, she is responsible for administration of its policies and procedures, including its policies governing conflict of interest. Lund is also president of the Athabasca-Redwater Conservative riding association.

Documents show Lund personally approved spending for several Tory fundraisers, including for her own riding association. Emails show she also actively recruited university executives to attend these functions.

"For members of Executive that do not golf, you may want to attend the breakfast and or dinner, as there are a number of Ministers and MLAs who will be in attendance. A good opportunity to network," Lund wrote in an Aug. 11, 2008 email sent under the title "Jeff Johnson Golf Tournie."

Documents show Athabasca University sent two teams to the Sept. 5, 2008 event at the Goose Hummock Golf course north of Gibbons at a cost of more than $1,600. They also paid for an MLA to golf on one of their teams.

Johnson declined to be interviewed. Lund did not respond to an interview request.

Unaware of donations, says board chair 

Walker said the board of governors was unaware of these donations, even though several of them, including university president Frits Pannekoek, attended several of the functions.

Political scientist Jay Smith said Athabasca University should not be singled out for illegal donations.

"I think there is a systemic rooted problem, which starts under the dome in the legislature and that is the place to start cleaning it up," he said, adding the government must stop making patronage appointments to university boards. Board members should instead be appointed through merit.

Smith said if Premier Alison Redford doesn’t make this change, "then she is part of the old system."