OTTAWA — The Liberals' national director is fighting back against accusations of dodgy fundraising practices, spelling out the lengths to which the party goes to avoid the perception that it is giving preferential access to cabinet ministers or placing them in a conflict of interest.
For instance, Christina Topp says the guest lists for fundraising events that feature a cabinet minister are vetted by the party to ensure that no one registered to lobby the minister's department is in attendance.
She says the same goes for parliamentary secretaries featured at fundraisers.
Topp provided a detailed list of the precautions taken by the party in a letter sent Friday to all ministers and the MPs who serve as their parliamentary secretaries.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference, in Ottawa on Thursday. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
The letter was obtained by The Canadian Press.
"I am writing today to outline for you the many steps and measures that the Liberal Party of Canada takes to address both the letter and the spirit of the Open and Accountable Government document in addition to Elections Canada regulations and conflict of interest rules,'' Topp says in the letter.
The Open and Accountable Government document was issued by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when the Liberals took office a year ago, spelling out the conduct expected of his ministers.
Among other things, it states that "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.''
'Not very savoury'
Opposition parties have accused Trudeau of breaking that directive by allowing his ministers to be the featured draw at so-called "cash-for-access'' events, where guests pay up to $1,500, the legally allowed maximum donation to a federal party.
Ethics commissioner Mary Dawson has called such events "not very savoury'' but says she doesn't have the legal authority to enforce Trudeau's directive.
Lobbying commissioner Karen Shepherd has confirmed she's looking into a complaint from advocacy group Democracy Watch over reports that the chairman of generic drug giant Apotex, Barry Sherman, is helping to sell tickets to a fundraising event next week featuring Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson waits to appear at a House of Commons committtee on Feb. 11, 2013 in Ottawa. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
Apotex is registered to lobby Morneau's department, although Sherman himself is listed as spending less than 20 per cent of his time on lobbying, which means he's not personally required to register as a lobbyist.
In her letter, Topp says it's "important to note that political fundraising is explicitly permitted by the law and all official guidance'' governing the conduct of public office holders. She goes on to describe measures the party takes to ensure it does not expose ministers or parliamentary secretaries to real or apparent conflicts of interest.
Among them, she says:
— No departmental stakeholders, lobbyists or employees of lobbying firms are "specifically targeted'' for donations.
— Ministers and parliamentary secretaries featured at events are not asked for and never provide lists of suggested invitees and are not involved in planning the events.
— Guest lists for the events are vetted by the party to "determine if any individuals are registered lobbyists with active files associated with the relevant department and, if necessary, take steps so that the individual does not attend the event.''
— "Fundraising events are partisan functions where we do not discuss government business.'' Hence, anyone who wishes to discuss policy at a fundraiser is "immediately redirected to instead make an appointment with the relevant office.''
— The party "takes great care'' to ensure that all communications about fundraising events clearly identify them as partisan affairs, going so far as to drop the government titles of ministers or parliamentary secretaries who are featured at them. "We do not make any connection between fundraising and official government business.''
"All of these practices underscore our party's strong commitment in trying to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest for Liberal office holders,'' Topp says.
She adds that ministers and parliamentary secretaries also host "hundreds'' of consultations, townhalls and online live discussions that are "open to the public at no cost.'' Moreover, she says Trudeau and all Liberal MPs have been guest speakers at hundreds of "free outreach events'' across the country, as well as at grassroots fundraising events "with low and accessible ticket prices.''
Trudeau himself has repeatedly defended the fundraisers featuring ministers, maintaining that federal political financing laws are strict enough — capping individual donations at $1,500, prohibiting corporate and union donations outright and requiring public disclosure of all contributions — to avoid the appearance of wealthy elites buying privileged access.
Nevertheless, he said Thursday he's open to considering further dramatic reforms to address perceptions of preferential access and to reduce political parties' need to engage in non-stop fundraising. Specifically, he said he's open to discussing lowering the $1,500 donation cap, reinstating the per-vote subsidy for parties and restricting how much parties can spend between elections.