New Brunswick

Premier pleased with work of hired lobbyist, but donations raise questions

U.S. President Donald Trump may have promised to drain the swamp in Washington, but New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant is having to wade into the muck as he tries to get some trade relief on softwood lumber.

Brian Gallant has been meeting with officials who have received campaign donations from lobbyist David Wilkins

New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant said David Wilkins's lobbying for New Brunswick has 'got a ball rolling down a hill and we're gaining momentum' on the softwood issue. (CBC)

U.S. President Donald Trump may have promised to drain the swamp in Washington, but New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant is having to wade into the muck as he tries to get some trade relief on softwood lumber.

Gallant's latest foray to the American capital included meetings with many officials who have received campaign donations from David Wilkins, the New Brunswick government's $40,000-per-month lobbyist.

They include Mike Mulvaney, the Trump administration's director of the Office of Management and Budget, who bragged last week that as a Republican congressman, he only met with lobbyists who donated to his campaigns.

While Wilkins told CBC News there was no connection between his donations and the meetings arranged for Gallant, the premier refused to speculate on a link.

Wilkins is a former U.S. ambassador to Canada who specializes in lobbying on Canada-U.S. issues. He is being paid $40,000 US a month to lobby on softwood lumber matters. (CBC News)

"I'm certainly not going to make any commentary on the U.S.'s political system," the premier said in a conference call with reporters.

"What I can tell you is what I've seen firsthand," he said.

Wilkins "is received by both Republicans and Democrats as somebody that they respect, somebody that they often know on a personal level, somebody they feel comfortable having important discussions [with] in a frank way."

Last Wednesday, Gallant tweeted a photo of his meeting with Mulvaney, a former congressman from South Carolina. It was the same day Mulvaney landed in controversy over comments he made at a conference of bankers.

"We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress," Mulvaney said, according to multiple U.S. media reports. "If you're a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn't talk to you. If you're a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you."

Wilkins, hired by New Brunswick last year to persuade the U.S. to lift softwood lumber tariffs, is a lobbyist who gave Mulvaney money.

He donated $2,600 to his fellow South Carolinian's congressional campaign in 2013-14 and another $2,000 in 2015-16.

The figures come from an online database maintained by the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics

Another of Gallant's meetings last week was with Sen. Lindsey Graham, another South Carolina Republican.

Records show Wilkins's firm donated $103,084 to Graham's campaign and political action committee in 2011-12, $102,640 in 2013-14, $95,090 in 2015-16, and $67,686 so far in 2017-18. 

Wilkins said in an email that he has been "personal friends for several decades" with Graham and Mulvaney.

He noted another Republican Gallant met, Rep. Bruce Poliquin, "hails from Maine--your next door neighbour. We are very grateful for their time this week."

Wilkins donated $2,000 to Poliquin in 2017-18, the online database shows.

Wilkins is a former U.S. ambassador to Canada who specializes in lobbying on Canada-U.S. issues. New Brunswick hired him last month on a one-year contract at a rate of $40,000 per month and recently extended the contract for another six months.

Before his appointment as ambassador, Wilkins was the speaker of South Carolina's House of Representatives, one of the most powerful political positions in the state. He's now a partner at the law firm Nelson Mullins, where his lobbying work is based.

Gallant said Wilkins was essential in arranging meetings with what the premier called "influencers" within the Trump administration, including meetings with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on previous trips.

Ross's department oversees trade measures, and it was under his watch that Canadian softwood was slapped with punishing new tariffs last year.

For the first time, New Brunswick lost its traditional exemption from the measures after the administration concluded that softwood from publicly subsidized land was making up a larger share of the total provincial harvest.

Gallant said Wilkins's lobbying for New Brunswick has "got a ball rolling down a hill and we're gaining momentum" on the softwood issue. He said his meetings with Ross have been "increasingly productive over time."

That's why the province recently extended Wilkins's contract until October, Gallant said. Having someone "on the ground" in Washington to follow up on the meetings is crucial, he said.

"We are all continuing to work extremely hard on the softwood lumber issue on behalf of the province of New Brunswick," Wilkins said.

$658K contract

Wilkins' initial one-year contract for $40,000 U.S. per month was estimated to cost taxpayers a total of $658,000 in Canadian dollars.

New Brunswick is just one of his firm's many clients, and many of the campaign donations predate the provincial contract, so taxpayer dollars from here have not flowed directly to the recipients.

Besides his firm's donations to Graham, Wilkins also chaired a non-profit group, the South Carolina Conservative Action Alliance.

It donated $140,000 to a political action committee supporting Graham's campaign for president in 2016, according to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Wilkins also donates to Democrats. In 2015-16, he gave $2,000 to Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal, who also met with Gallant last week.

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