Politics

Justin Trudeau defends Liberal ethics record amid fundraising controversy

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is defending the Liberal Party's fundraising and accountability ethics amid a brewing controversy over a fundraiser with his justice minister at a Bay Street law firm.

Questions swirl around $500-a-head event with justice minister hosted at Toronto Bay Street law firm

Requests for explanations to how the Toronto event featuring the minister of justice fits with the prime minister's accountability guidelines, directed to the minister's office and the Liberal Party, received no specific response. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is defending the Liberal Party's fundraising and accountability ethics amid a brewing controversy over a money-making event with his justice minister at a Bay Street law firm.

The $500-a-head reception 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.

Cash raised at the event will go to the Liberal Party of Canada.

Commitment to ethics, accountability

Asked about whether he thinks that is appropriate, Trudeau did not address the specific event. Instead, he spoke of the party's general commitment to meet high standards for ethics and accountability.

"The federal government and the Liberal Party of Canada have very, very strict rules around fundraising. We do not permit union donations, we do not permit corporate donations. The fact is, individuals have very strict limits as well on how much they can donate," he said during an event in Montreal.

The prime minister went on to say that the Liberal Party has demonstrated a level of "openness and transparency" to meet a high bar set by Canadians.

Trudeau repeated those lines and did not address the specific event in question during a second round of questions from reporters this afternoon in Trois-Rivières, Que.

Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould will be the main attraction at a $500-a-ticket private reception at a Toronto law firm. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Questions around the Wilson-Raybould event, scheduled for Thursday night, come as Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced Tuesday that she is cancelling private fundraising events.

Her party's fundraising tactics, which included quotas for cabinet ministers, have come under fire. Wynne has promised to work with other parties to revamp Ontario's political fundraising rules this fall.

When asked if he was at odds with Wynne when it comes to private fundraisers, Trudeau said "on the contrary," but that some provinces need to update policies in order to strengthen public trust.

'Open and accountable government'

The Liberals released new ethics guidelines on Nov. 27, 2015, called "Open and Accountable Government."

The 87-page document says ministers and parliamentary secretaries "must ensure that political fundraising activities or considerations do not affect, or appear to affect, the exercise of their official duties or the access of individuals or organizations to government."

"There should be no preferential access to government, or appearance of preferential access, accorded to individuals or organizations because they have made financial contributions to politicians and political parties," the guidelines read.

Based on information to date, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson is not looking into the matter.

The only provision in the Conflict of Interest Act that deals with fundraising is a section that prohibits a public office holder from personally soliciting funds if it would place the public office holder in a conflict of interest.

Ethics commissioner calls for tighter rules

In past submissions to MPs, Dawson has recommended a "more stringent rule with respect to fundraising" for ministers and parliamentary secretaries.

At the time, she noted: "Even where a current conflict of interest does not exist, there is the risk that, as a result of the fundraising, they could potentially, in the future, be in breach of other sections of the act, such as section 6 (decision-making) or 7 (preferential treatment)," said office spokeswoman Margot Booth.

"Commissioner Dawson also notes that there are stricter rules for ministers and parliamentary secretaries in Open and Accountable Government, but our office does not administer that document. It is administered by the Privy Council Office, and those rules do not carry the force of law," she wrote in an email.

Citing "confidentiality considerations,"  the office said the commissioner can't comment on any specific advice given, but Booth did confirm that Wilson-Raybould's office was in contact this morning.

Preferential access?

Liberal Party spokesman Braedon Caley defended the event, insisting that the party complies with the Election Act in all of its fundraising activities and that no lobbyists are expected to attend.

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

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch and visiting professor at the University of Ottawa, said if the prime minister won't enforce his own rules he is essentially "approving of corrupt relationships between donors and politicians."

"If Prime Minister Trudeau is trying to hide behind the federal political finance rules, he's hiding behind an unethical facade," he said. "It's a charade and it allows still, ministers to essentially be bought off by wealthy individuals."

NDP MP and critic for ethics and democratic reform Alexandre Boulerice urged the Liberals to change course and rethink fundraisers that rely on "preferential access" to cabinet ministers.

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