A representative of a coalition of construction companies and anti-union contractors lobbied Premier Alison Redford by linking large political donations to Redford and to the provincial Conservative party with political promises to revise Alberta’s labour code, according to documents obtained through Freedom of Information.
"In my opinion, they are essentially saying, ‘Our donations are given in return for government action on specific issues,’" said Duff Conacher, founder of Democracy Watch, an Ottawa-based watchdog group.
"They are saying their donations are connected to those actions, and dependent on those actions," said Conacher, who is also an adjunct law professor at the University of Toronto. "And that, I think, in my opinion, crosses the line in the Criminal Code bribery provisions."
CBC News asked Conacher to respond to statements contained in emails from Ledcor executive Tom Brown to Hunter Wight, the executive director of Premier Alison Redford’s Calgary office. The emails, and other documents, were obtained through freedom of information by the Alberta Federation of Labour, which provided them to CBC News.
Brown wrote the emails on behalf of the Construction Competitiveness Coalition, which includes PCL Construction, Ledcor, Merit Contractors and several other companies and associations which have been vigorously lobbying the government for more than three years to change Alberta’s labour laws.
The string of emails shows Brown was introduced to Wight by long-time Calgary Conservative party fundraiser Barry Heck. In January, the Globe and Mail reported Heck had brokered a $430,000 donation from Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz to the Tory party during the last provincial election. The donation is now under investigation by Alberta’s chief electoral officer.
On April 26, 2012, three days after the provincial election, Heck wrote an email to Wight and Brown.
"As you know I am not a ‘lobbyist’ and therefore do not act as such and as a result the only help or advice that I am able to give to Tom is to direct him to an appropriate person in the premier’s office that he can speak to, which is why I am referring Tom into you," Heck wrote. "I will now leave this to the two of you to connect and move forward."
A check of the lobbyist registry shows Brown is also not a registered lobbyist. But Alberta’s law allows up to 100 hours of lobbying before an individual must register.
Donations linked to political promises
In a June 7, 2012 email, Brown tells Wight a "high-powered collection of senior construction executives led by Paul Douglas, President and CEO of PCL" was expecting him to provide a date for a meeting with Redford before month’s end.
Brown tells Wight that PCL and Ledcor "both made major contributions to Ms. Redford’s leadership campaign and to the PC’s election campaign fund (in Ledcor’s case up to the legislated maximum). Other members of our coalition were also significant supporters of both the Premier and the PC Party."
Brown said he understands Redford is busy, but then states:"There will be considerable disappointment and possibly misgivings within our coalition if I do not have something concrete to report next week."
In a May 12, 2012 email, Brown reminded Wight that the coalition had met with Redford on Aug. 24, 2011, during her leadership campaign, and "at that meeting she expressed strong support for our objectives and promised quick action when elected. This was further underscored by commitments published in the PC election platform."
The Conservative party’s election platform promised to amend Alberta’s labour legislation. Specifically, the platform includes a revision, lobbied for by the coalition,which would allow union members to opt out of the proportion of union dues that fund activities unrelated to collective bargaining and grievance administration. The Alberta Federation of Labour said that revision would effectively end unionism in the province.
Redford declined an interview request. In an email, press secretary Neala Barton said Redford did not meet with anyone from the coalition after Brown’s email.
"Making a political donation doesn’t provide anyone with preferential treatment and it would be misguided for an individual to believe otherwise," Barton wrote, adding later that Wight did not respond to Brown’s email.
Executive says no special access
Brown also declined an interview request but in an email, he said he did not send the emails on behalf of Ledcor, PCL or the coalition and they had no knowledge of it.
"They reflect my personal frustration at that time, over getting up-to-date information about the status of the policy issues that were already under discussion," Brown wrote. He said neither he nor the coalition received any special access to the premier or the government in relation to the labour-code revision issue.
In an emailed statement, PCL was not aware of Brown’s email and did not condone it.
In a Nov. 26, 2010 letter, PCL chief executive officer Paul Douglas tells then Premier Ed Stelmach that PCL will continue to support the PC party and offers further support to both the party and efforts to push through labour-code revisions.
"It was not our intention in the Nov. 26, 2010 letter to link financial support with proposed legislation," the PCL email states, adding that PCL doesn’t believe political access or public policy should be influenced by donations.
"If we have ever conveyed a message that may appear to be inconsistent with that belief, it was unintended," PCL writes.
Conacher said he believes Brown’s lobbying crosses a legal line.
"The construction companies are definitely lobbying, but in these specific (emails), they essentially go beyond lobbying and I think cross the line in the Criminal Code provisions, and say, ‘Our political donations are, essentially, bribes,’" Conacher said.
Nothing wrong with lobbying
But Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt sees nothing wrong with Brown linking political donations with expected legislative changes.
"I think it basically shines a light on the way that business is done in Alberta," Bratt said. "And most of it is behind the scenes.
"And I think the very fact that they gave donations, and they’re not getting exactly what they want, I think shows that there is no direct quid pro quo.
"I don’t think either of them believe that a statement like that is a threat, or a statement like that is actually going to change minds," Bratt said.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said he rejects the suggestion that this kind of "backroom politics" is acceptable.
"There are those in Alberta who will say this is just the way business is done, that it's no big surprise that big business is cozying up to government," McGowan said. "But frankly, I think that even if this is the way that business is done, ordinary Albertans should be concerned. Because it's not the way business should be done."