Politics

Jody Wilson-Raybould defends $500-a-plate fundraiser

Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould faced an onslaught of criticism from the opposition Monday for her appearance at a $500-a-plate fundraiser at a top Bay Street law firm.

Justice minister consulted ethics commissioner only after CBC News reported she would attend event

Alberta Conservative Blaine Calkins asks Jody Wilson-Raybould why she attended a private fundraiser at a Bay street law firm 1:53

Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould faced an onslaught of criticism from the opposition Monday for her appearance at a $500-a-plate fundraiser at a top Bay Street law firm.

Jody Wilson-Raybould, a lawyer, said she attended the Toronto event as a member of Parliament, and she followed all the fundraising rules outlined in the Canada Elections Act.

"Fundraising is an activity that every member of this House engages in," the Vancouver-area minister said. "I would never place myself in a conflict of interest, and that is why I proactively engaged with the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner prior to attending this event. I take my ethical responsibilities incredibly seriously."

But the opposition rejected that defence, adding it's unlikely Toronto-based lawyers were interested in her work on behalf of the constituents of Vancouver–Granville.

Moreover, Wilson-Raybould only sought the advice of the ethics commissioner after CBC News first reported she would be the star attraction at the event sponsored by Torys LLP, an international business law firm.

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."

The justice minister conceded that her policy adviser, Jessica Prince, was also at the event, but she attended not as a political operative but rather as a volunteer that paid her own way.

The Liberal Party also paid for the costs associated with the event, and Torys regularly makes its space available for a variety of non-profit and charitable causes. 

'Pay for play'

Conservative MP Michael Cooper branded the fundraiser as a classic case of "pay for play," whereby high-powered attorneys could get face time with the minister in exchange for generous donations.

But Wilson-Raybould batted away that suggestion saying that they simply talked about "Canada," and how "the justice minister can be an aboriginal person, and also be a woman. That's what this country is about."

Cooper doubled down asking the minister to "clear the stench from this sordid Liberal fundraising affair," by releasing a list of attendees. Liberal House leader Dominic LeBlanc said that those names would be included in the party's fundraising reports to Elections Canada.

"The member knows full well all of those donations are disclosed, according to law, every quarter. The member can spend the whole evening searching the internet — good news it's coming to a computer near him." 

But that report simply documents the names of all the people who donated more than $200 to the party in a three-month period, it would not explicitly list those who attended the event in question.

LeBlanc also raised the irony of the Conservatives flagging potentially problematic fundraising issues when members of their own party have faced jail time for election expenses.

Former MP Dean Del Mastro was escorted out of a Peterborough, Ont. court in shackles last summer after being found guilty of breaking the law by overspending during the 2008 federal election. He recently lost an appeal.

Former heritage minister Shelly Glover also faced criticism for hosting members of Winnipeg's arts community at her home, in exchange for donations to the party. She was ultimately cleared by the ethics commissioner.

Former Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro was sentenced to one month in prison, followed by four months of house arrest, for breaking the law by overspending during the 2008 federal election. (CBC )

In the mandate letters Trudeau gave each minister and parliamentary secretary, he made it clear he expected cabinet to read and adhere to a code of ethics.

It says ministers should ensure the solicitation of political contributions on their behalf does not target "departmental stakeholders." The document defines a stakeholder as individuals who work for or represent corporations and organizations that have current or anticipated official dealings with the minister, their staff or the department.

The code instructs members of cabinet that there should be "no preferential access to government or appearance of preferential access" for those who donate to politicians and political parties.

With files from the CBC's Alison Crawford

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