Federal justice minister to attend $500-a-head Liberal Party event at law firm

On the same day Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced she would end her involvement in private fundraisers, CBC News has learned the federal justice minister will be the main attraction at a $500-a-head reception hosted by a prominent Bay Street law firm.

Private fundraisers skew access in favour of those with money, Ottawa law professor says

A reception hosted by a Bay Street law firm is charging $500 a ticket for the chance to mingle with Minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

On the same day Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced she would end her involvement in private fundraisers, CBC News has learned the federal justice minister will be the main attraction at a $500-a-head reception hosted by a prominent Bay Street law firm.

The event featuring Minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould is being hosted by Torys LLP, an international business law firm with offices in Toronto, Montreal, New York, Calgary and Halifax. Money raised at the event will go into the coffers of the Liberal Party of Canada.

​And if you didn't know about it already — you're not invited.

Criticism about chummy events such as these, where the well-heeled can buy time with the well-connected are what led Wynne to announce the cancellation of her own fundraising events earlier today.

"Mr. Speaker I think we have to lead by example and that's why I've made the decision to immediately cancel upcoming private fundraisers that I attend, Mr. Speaker, and I've also asked the same of my ministers," Wynne said during question period at Queen's Park.

The Ontario Liberals' fundraising tactics, which included money-making quotas for cabinet ministers, have forced the party to change course, with Wynne promising her government will update Ontario's political fundraising rules this fall —  although she conceded it is unlikely new rules will be effect before the next provincial election in 2018.

MPs 'have role to play' in fundraising events

Now, the federal Liberal party has been compelled to defend its actions.

"Events are one part of that fundraising and engagement work, and the Liberal Party of Canada fully complies with the Elections Act in all of its fundraising activity," said Braedon Caley, senior director of communications for the federal party, in an email. "At the federal level, donations cannot be accepted from corporations, trade unions or associations, and all contributions over $200 are publicly reported each quarter and annually.

"As one would expect, all MPs have a role to play in attending events for their political party," he added. 

The Thursday night event with Wilson-Raybould was not advertised publicly and cannot be found by searching the Liberal Party of Canada website. 

"The event is being organized by the Liberal Party of Canada and hosted personally by Mitch Frazer, a partner at Torys LLP, not by Torys itself," the party said in a later email to CBC News. 

'Minister's first private event in Toronto!'

In an email to invited guests, one of the organizers at Torys wrote, "In her new role, she has an extraordinary mandate which includes an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, the legalization of marijuana and assisted-dying legislation. This will be the Minister's first private event in Toronto!" adding that attendees of the event are "fortunate to have secured an evening of her time."

Caley also said the Liberal Party is entirely responsible for all costs associated with the event — and that Torys regularly makes its space available for a variety of non-profit and charitable causes.

Caley added, "No individuals registered to lobby the federal ministry of justice are expected as attendees."

Nothing prevents public office holders from participating in fundraising activities for charitable or political purposes, as long as they follow all the rules. Even so, University of Ottawa law professor Charles-Maxime Panaccio says this one doesn't pass the smell test.

'We can assume that not everybody can afford it. We can assume that not everybody is aware that there is such a fundraiser,'  -  Law professor Charles-Maxime Panaccio

"Some of the lawyers involved in the fundraiser or attending the fundraiser might eventually want to be appointed judges. Second, contracts might be given to those law firms."

Not only that, Panacchio adds this kind of fundraiser skews access in favour of those with money.

"Here it's a bigger law firm. It's $500 per person," he said. "We can assume that not everybody can afford it. We can assume that not everybody is aware that there is such a fundraiser. So in principle everybody should have an equal opportunity to have access to the minister of justice," Panaccio told CBC.

NDP MP and critic for ethics and democratic reform Alexandre Boulerice said the federal Liberals need to reverse track right away.

"I think the right thing to do for the Liberal Party of Canada is to cancel that event and to rethink how they should raise money without involving preferential access time to ministers," Boulerice said.

About the Author

Alison Crawford

Politics

Alison Crawford is a senior reporter in CBC's parliamentary bureau, covering justice, public safety, the Supreme Court and Liberal Party of Canada.

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