The head of one of Manitoba's universities admits it was a mistake for the university to spend money on political fundraising campaigns.
The acknowledgement by Léo Robert, president of the board of governors at Université de Saint Boniface, follows a CBC News investigation into whether public institutions in Manitoba give money to political fundraising efforts — a practice not allowed under election laws.
"We thought we were in full compliance with the law. We found out very recently that we were not. So we took certain steps since then to correct the illegality of what we were doing," Robert said in an interview with CBC and Radio Canada.
Robert said the university has stopped the practice.
Documents released under Manitoba's freedom of information law showed that in 2010 and 2011, officials with Université de St. Boniface purchased tickets to political party fundraising events totaling $3,500.
The staff then filed expense claims to be reimbursed by the university. The amounts from the 22 claims ranged from $50 to $250.
CBC News requested records from the main universities, colleges, and Crown corporations in Manitoba, but the St. Boniface university was the only institution that had purchased tickets for political fundraisers.
The fundraisers were primarily for the provincial NDP and Premier Greg Selinger, whose constituency includes St. Boniface.
Conservative MP disappointed
A handful of claims were for St. Boniface federal Liberal candidate Raymond Simard, one for a Liberal Party dinner with then-leader Michael Ignatieff, and one was for federal Conservative MP Shelley Glover.
"No matter what kind of shenanigans are going on here, the St. Boniface university is very important to my riding. I support it," Glover said.
But Glover said the fact that the majority of the fundraising money spent went to the NDP is unfair.
University staff claimed only one $50 ticket to a Conservative fundraiser — Glover's Halloween bash in 2009, a claim that was submitted for reimbursement in 2010.
"I'm going to continue to support the St. Boniface university, but I'm disappointed. I'm very disappointed," Glover said.
One of Glover's provincial Conservative colleagues says the reimbursements by the university are inappropriate, regardless of which party benefits.
"If someone has to pay to get access to political leaders, that is not the way our democratic system is supposed to work," said Kelvin Goertzen, Manitoba's Progressive Conservative house leader.
"You're not supposed to have to pay for influence, to pay to get the ear of someone who is a decision maker."
Meeting with community as whole
But Robert said having university officials attend political events is not intended to have meeting time with politicians, but with the community as a whole.
"I think it's important for any university to be present at these and to make it known that we exist and that we can establish some contacts with some important people at those different gatherings," he said.
Robert explained that when the university's board of governors reviewed its policy in 2010, it had information that reimbursements for political fundraisers was allowed because the money came from donations to the university rather than from government funding.
"We didn't intentionally do anything that would contravene the law," he said.
Robert said officials with Elections Manitoba has been asked to investigate the matter and advise on how to remedy the situation.
The university also plans to contact Elections Canada about the matter, he added.
Robert said the university's senate, board of governors and student association have been informed of the issue, as well as the political parties.