New Brunswick

Dozens of 'incorrectly accepted' donations to PCs in 2018 missed by Elections NB

The agency in charge of policing New Brunswick's political donation law missed dozens of potential infractions in 2018 but says it is not practical for it to review contributions made to parties in detail.

CBC report triggered internal PC party review and a decision to refund donors

New Brunswick's chief electoral officer Kim Poffenroth also oversees political donation rules. Dozens of contributions to the PCs her agency now says were "incorrectly accepted" were not picked up in financial reviews of its return. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

The agency in charge of policing New Brunswick's political donation law missed dozens of potential infractions in 2018 but says it is not practical for it to review contributions made to parties in detail.

"We would never review every single contribution receipt," said Kim Poffenroth, who is New Brunswick's chief electoral officer as well as the supervisor of political process financing.

"For every return that is filed, a group (of contribution receipts) are selected and then those are reviewed in more detail looking for potential flags."

Earlier this year the New Brunswick Progressive Conservative party on its own initiative refunded 36 donations it received in 2018 and an unknown number from 2019 after it could not confirm they were legal under provincial political financing legislation. 

PCs say a CBC report last November showing donations to the party from bankrupt cannabis retailer Hank Merchant and his spouse triggered an internal review that turned up dozens of problematic donations. (CBC)

"The donations in question were all money order contributions that were refunded back to the contributor," said PC executive director Andrea Johnson about the discovery of more than $30,000 in problematic donations over the two year period.

The revelation came months after the party submitted its 2018 financial return and it had been reviewed by Elections NB. 

The agency now acknowledges the contributions were "incorrectly accepted" by the party.

PC does own internal review

For more than 40 years in New Brunswick it has been law that donations to political parties over $100 have to come from a bank account or credit card belonging to the donor. The rule is meant to help establish that person as the actual contributor. 

Hank Merchant and his spouse Anne Marie donated $7,500 to the PC Party although the couple had been in bankruptcy at the time. (CBC)

However, the PC review turned up more than $30,000 in money order contributions that could not easily be authenticated as having come from the personal finances of what turned out to be dozens of donors including current attorney-general Andrea Anderson-Mason.

The party's internal review was triggered after a CBC story last November showed it had accepted $7,500 in donations over two years from Hank Merchant and his spouse Anne Marie although the couple had been in bankruptcy at the time.  

Merchant had been a high profile grey market cannabis retailer in the province and receipts issued to the couple by the party indicated their donations were made in cash -- although they were later confirmed to be money orders.  

Still it was unclear where the cash to buy the money orders originated and the party, which initially defended the Merchant donations as proper, eventually elected to review and reject them.  

A pair of $2,500 receipts issued by New Brunswick PCs to Hank and Anne Marie Merchant in 2018 say donations they made to the party were in cash. Although not noticed by Elections NB it triggered an internal party review after being reported by CBC News. (CBC)

It then went further, reviewing other money order donations. Those that could not be definitively traced back to bank accounts or credit cards of the donors were returned.

"Once the Merchants issue was raised we took it upon ourselves to make sure we did not have any more similar instances," said Johnson.

No investigation

The refunds ranged in size from $150 to $3,000. Anderson-Mason's refund is listed as $1,000.

In an interview Anderson-Mason said she had run out of personal cheques during 2018 and used a bank draft to make a donation.  She had limited experience with politics at the time and said she did not realize donations of that kind could be a a problem. She said she was surprised earlier this year when told it was being returned.

"It was long before I was a minister," she said of the original contribution.

Andrea Anderson-Mason was a PC candidate in 2018 who won her riding and was eventually named the province's attorney general. A $1,000 donation she made to the party that year is one of dozens recently refunded for lacking proof it came from her account. (Julia Wright / CBC)

The returned donations may have been violations of the law or legal contributions that simply lacked proper documentation. In either case no one from Elections NB has investigated to find out.

"We said that if we could be provided with some evidence that the money orders were purchased directly from the account of the contributor then it could stand," said Poffenroth.

"It is my understanding that PCNB decided it would be easier to return all of the contributions by money order rather than trying to track down all of those individual contributors and have them go back into their records."

Duff Conacher is co-founder of Democracy Watch and an advocate of tighter rules on political donations across Canada.  

Duff Conacher is co-founder of Democracy Watch. He believes Elections NB needs to do a better job policing the province's political donation rules. (David Richard/CBC)

He argues the failure of Elections NB to catch even a few of the dozens of problem donations is a concern.

"If they don't have the resources then the politicians must give them those resources or everyone should quite justifiably assume that the rules will be broken because everyone knows no one's watching to enforce the rules," said Conacher.  

Poffenroth said she is not aware of problem donations being discovered by her office in any of the other parties recent returns.

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