Prominent Progressive Conservative Calgary lawyer Joe Lougheed, son of former premier Peter Lougheed, bought tickets to Tory fundraisers on behalf of the University of Calgary, and then billed the university extra hours to pay for them, according to documents obtained through Freedom of Information by CBC News.
The university's in-house lawyer warned Lougheed she believed the practice was designed to "circumvent" election financing laws and could be illegal.
In 2008, the lawyer, Charlene Anderson, questioned a legal bill from Lougheed for $4,500 for "Government Relations Matters," documents show.
In an Aug. 13, 2008 email to Anderson, Lougheed explained that "the bill in question relates to the Premier's Dinner. As the U of C is precluded from buying the table directly, we buy the table for the U of C, write off the disbursement, and then simply charge for an equivalent amount of time. This is a practice we have followed for a couple years now. This is the first time this has been questioned by you.
"If (U of C) Legal Services does not want to pay this, that is fine. I understand you budget is tight, but it is separate and apart from my normal retainer for (Government Relations) matters."
Lawyer defends billing university of political donations
Lougheed in a subsequent email told Anderson he thought she was "splitting hairs" about his practice of billing for fees in order to cover the cost of political donations.
But Anderson was having none of it. In an Aug. 14th email to Lougheed she wrote: "You are correct that this was the first time this 'practice' has been questioned by me. However, I questioned, and objected to it, the moment I became aware of it. I cannot pay this account nor can I condone this practice.
"This practice, in my opinion, exposes the university to unnecessary risks – legally, financially and reputationally. The university cannot pay for services that were not rendered, nor should we circumvent the rules that preclude us from buying a table."
In a second email to Lougheed, on Aug. 18, Anderson told him his email made it clear he was buying a table on behalf of the U of C "because we were prevented from doing so and that you would bill an equivalent amount as 'fees' in exchange for the table. You were not billing us for your time. I have reviewed the (Alberta) Elections Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act, which specifically prohibits the university from contributing funds to a party or candidate.
"This Act also prohibits another entity from making these contributions on our behalf. In addition, the (Canada Revenue Agency) also has prohibitions. So I stand by my real concern that this practice is illegal and unacceptable."
Practice of billing for legal donations ceases
Lougheed subsequently responded, telling Anderson that he had discussed the practice of issuing legal bills to cover the costs of attending political events with Roman Cooney, the university's vice-president of external relations, and another university official, and decided to go ahead.
But Lougheed assured Anderson the practice would end immediately.
Lougheed did not return calls to CBC. A Toronto-based spokesman for his law firm, Fraser Milner Casgrain, said there would be no comment because the matter was now with Brian Fjeldheim, Alberta's chief electoral officer, who is investigating.
The U of C sent the matter to Fjeldheim after uncovering documents related to the information request from CBC.
Lougheed however, did provide a written explanation to the U of C on Feb. 16, 2012, which CBC also obtained through freedom of information. He said the 2008 disagreement over his billing for political donations was essentially a misunderstanding.
"My poorly drafted email of Aug. 13, 2008 would have created some confusion, in particular the phrase, 'then simply charge for an equivalent amount of time.'
"I had intended to explain that the March invoice was related to government relations, and the cost of the tickets to the Premier's Dinner was not charged to the University of Calgary."
U of C attended numerous Conservative fundraising events
The documents also show the university attending numerous Tory fundraising events – and no other parties – and spent nearly $10,000 between 2004 and 2008, when the university says it ended the practice.
"We go to lots of political events – dinners, fundraisers, golf tournaments – because it's important to be seen in the community and it presents opportunities for us to "gently" make our case," Cooney wrote in one September 2004 email.
Documents show several Tory politicians solicited the university to attend their fundraising events including Gary Mar, Ron Liepert, Mel Knight and various premiers.
In a news release issued Friday, the university said it can't comment further because the donations are under investigation by the chief electoral officer.
A CBC News investigation last fall uncovered the practice of organizations including municipalities and post-secondary institutions making illegal donations.
It is illegal for any publicly funded organization to make political donations. The chief electoral officer has investigated nearly 60 cases and has 20 more underway.