05/21/2013 04:00 EDT | Updated 07/20/2013 05:12 EDT

Appointees to EI boards broke guidelines by making political donations

OTTAWA - Dozens of people appointed to plum patronage jobs have been donating to the Conservative party, despite government rules that forbid it.

A Canadian Press investigation found as many as one of every five chairpersons on the Employment Insurance Boards of Referees gave money to political parties, riding associations and election candidates while they served on the tribunal.

All but one of the dozens of donations went to Conservatives, Election Canada records show. The lone non-Tory donation went to a Liberal riding association in the Toronto area.

Those donations run afoul of guidelines for administrative tribunals, such as the EI referees boards, which hear complaints about EI decisions on issues such as denied benefits and fraud.

A document entitled "Information Handbook for Employment Insurance Boards of Referees" says chairpersons should avoid all political activities.

"In light of the nature of their duties, governor-in-council appointees of quasi-judicial bodies, such as chairpersons to Boards of Referees, are subject to a much more stringent standard and should generally avoid all political activities," says the guide, dated June 2012.

Political activities include giving money to a political party, joining a party, attending partisan events or fundraising. Raymond Rivet, chief spokesman for the Privy Council Office, confirmed in an email that the guidelines stipulate that appointees are not supposed to engage in any political activities.

Elections Canada records show a number of chairpersons made political donations — altogether worth as much as $37,000 — while serving on the EI referees boards.

The Canadian Press matched the names and hometowns of chairpersons listed on two government websites with donors in Elections Canada's database, which shows contributors' names, home towns and postal codes.

Only donations made by serving chairpersons were included in the final tally.

Donations made prior to chairpersons being named to the EI referees boards, or after their terms end, are allowed under government rules. A number of the boards' chairpersons made political donations before their appointments, with the lion's share going to Conservatives.

The donations raise questions about whether EI complainants receive impartial hearings, said New Democrat MP Chris Charlton, her party's human resources critic.

"Obviously, Canadians have a right to expect that appeals will be heard by a neutral board of referees," Charlton said.

"Clearly, these alleged donations would call into question whether EI recipients are able to get a fair hearing. It's bad enough that all of these boards are stacked with Conservative friends and insiders, but then if they've taken donations from them as well, it clearly calls the impartiality of these boards into question."

Eleven chairpersons confirmed making donations. Others did not return phone calls. One appointee refused to confirm or deny her donation.

There seemed to be confusion around the no-donation rule. None of the chairpersons seemed aware of any restrictions against donating and some insisted they had every right to give money to a political party.

The government appointed John Buddy Wiens of Morden, Man., as a chairman of the EI referees board for the Winnipeg district in April 2008. Elections Canada records show Wiens made three donations — totalling $1,500 — to the Portage-Lisgar Conservative riding association in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

In a telephone interview, Wiens confirmed he made the donations, but said no one told him it was against the rules. He said he did not recall reading the section of the EI referees boards' handbook about political activities.

"No, I'm sorry." Wiens said. "You got me. I'm totally by surprise."

Rodney Balkwill of Brandon, Man., was named a chairman of an EI referees board in February 2009. Elections Canada records show Balkwill made a single donation of $250 to the 2011 election campaign of Conservative MP Merv Tweed.

It was Tweed's idea that he sit on the board, Balkwill said.

"I actually was involved in another organization that put on cultural events in Brandon and I happened to meet Merv at one of those and he asked me if I was interested in becoming a member of the board and I said yeah, I would be," Balkwill said.

"I sent in a resume, and eventually was appointed."

Balkwill added that he knew Tweed "casually," but has not attended the Conservative MP's events. He said he has supported different political parties at different points in his life, and no one asked him to donate to Tweed's campaign.

Tweed was not immediately available to comment.

The government made Denis Almon of North Sydney, N.S., a chairperson of an EI referees board in November 2007. Elections Canada records show Almon made more than a dozen donations after his appointment, which he confirmed making in a telephone interview.

Almon said he did not mix politics with his duties on the regional Nova Scotia EI referees board, although he added that he should be able to give money to whoever he wants. He also said being a political donor "certainly" has something to do with being appointed to the board.

"This is only natural. Who would you appoint yourself if somebody was helping in doing something for you, or you believed in, or somebody that you had nothing to do with?" Almon said.

"I think it's only a natural phenomenon more than anything else. I don't think it's for the money that the political parties get out if it."

The EI referees boards are among the dozens of federal organizations whose ranks are filled in whole or in part by people appointed by the Governor General, on the advice of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet.

The boards sit part-time in groups of three, consisting of a government-appointed chair and representatives of workers and employers.

The boards will soon become a thing of the past. In last year's omnibus budget legislation, the governing Conservatives announced a new Social Security Tribunal would replace the EI referees boards. Canada Pension Plan and old age security claimants will also be able to appeal to the tribunal.

However, the EI referees boards will continue to hear appeals filed before April 1. The boards will decide on those cases until Oct. 31, at which point their unheard appeals will be transferred to the new tribunal.

Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, the department responsible for the EI referees boards, did not respond to a request for an in-person or telephone interview.

The Privy Council Office said a handbook for public-office holders entitled "Accountable Government" says government-appointed members of quasi-judicial bodies such as the EI referees boards are held to a higher standard and should avoid all political activities.

The rules in the "Accountable Government" handbook are consistent with the rules in the handbook for the EI referees board, Rivet said. Chairpersons must agree to comply with government guidelines as a condition of their appointment, he added.

Anyone found to have made political donations during their appointments would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, Rivet said. "Each situation would need to be assessed to determine what action would be taken."

Rivet did not directly respond to questions about the chairpersons who donated during their appointments. He also did not respond when asked if PCO planned to investigate the donations.

Fred DeLorey, a Conservative party spokesman, would only say that "the Conservative party only accepts individuals donations within the legal limit."

Peter Van Loan, the Government House leader, also avoided directly answering a question about the donations.

"Members of the new Social Security Tribunal are appointed by merit," he said to derisive laughter from opposition benches during question period on Monday.

"They undergo a rigorous selection process, and they have to meet significant experience and competence that are required to do that job."