OTTAWA - The chief electoral officer says tens of thousands of dollars worth of union sponsorships at the NDP's last convention have raised questions and he's referred the matter to the commissioner of elections for investigation.
But Marc Mayrand said Tuesday the issue of advertising, sponsorships and political parties is complicated, and he's seen no evidence yet on the complaint lodged by the Conservatives.
"The only thing I've seen so far is a letter from the party making some allegations about possible illegal contributions," Mayrand told a Commons committee today.
"There's no evidence with it."
The Conservative party sent a letter to Elections Canada in the summer, raising concerns that the NDP might have accepted illegal contributions by allowing unions to sponsor events at their June convention. The Tories included photos of some of the signage at the event.
One of the events that carried union sponsorship was a dinner featuring the late NDP leader Jack Layton and Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter. The sign for the event included the symbol of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
A flyer for a $300-a-ticket "intimate reception'' with Layton featured the logo of the United Steelworkers union.
Le Devoir newspaper reported last month that the NDP took in an estimated $160,000 from the unions for sponsorship or advertising during the convention, according to figures provided by some of those organizations.
Mayrand said that such advertising is acceptable provided the unions or corporations are trying to reach a legitimate market, and that they are paying fair market value for the ads.
"If the amount received is greater than the value of any service provided, then a contribution will have occurred," he said. "Determinations regarding the existence of a market and fair market value of a good and service are essentially questions of fact that involve careful consideration of all the circumstances of a particular transaction."
Dean Del Mastro, parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, said it's obvious to him that the unions paid far more than market value.
"My contention is that you could buy an advertisement during the Super Bowl, you could buy an advertisement during the Stanley Cup playoffs Game 7 for what some of these folks paid to be on the sign boards at the NDP convention," Del Mastro said.
"I think there were maybe 600 or 700 people there."
Mayrand noted that unlike advertising, sponsorships often involve parties paying more than market value for the privilege, but that was something the commissioner of elections would have to scrutinize. He also reminded MPs that he does not have the jurisdiction to look at a political party's books to verify transactions.
Heather Wilson, the NDP's director of fundraising and membership, has said advertisements and sponsorships at "fair market value'' are allowed by law and Elections Canada is aware of the practice.
Conservative MP Colin Mayes said the sponsorships raise concerns about third parties trying to influence decision-makers who are setting federal policy.
"If we let these doors open, where's the limit, what's fair market value, who's going to determine that?" Mayes said.
"If you open that door, you're just going to end up with huge corporations and unions that are just going to take advantage of this and know they're going to be seen as influencing a party."
A handful of organizations hosted hospitality suites at the Conservative party convention last June.
The Canadian Real Estate Association served a beverage called "Majoritinis" to Tory delegates and others who wandered into their hotel suite. A spokesperson for the association said the suite was organized separately from the Conservative party and was part of a public affairs campaign. The association also holds receptions for MPs on Parliament Hill.
The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers sponsored hospitality suites at both the Tory and NDP conventions this year.
The New Democrats on the committee tried Tuesday to shift the focus away from their convention and onto the question of the Conservative Party's own problems with Elections Canada.
Earlier this year, four Conservative officials were charged with regulatory violations of the Canada Elections Act related to electoral overspending.
Under the in-and-out scheme, the party transferred funds to dozens of riding associations and then directed them to send the money right back in order to pay for radio and TV advertising during the 2006 election.
Elections Canada argued the advertising was national in nature and resulted in the party exceeding its spending limits. The Conservatives disagree and have been fighting Elections Canada in court.
The Federal Court of Appeals sided with Elections Canada and the Tories have filed an appeal with the Supreme Court of Canada.