06/19/2014 03:31 EDT | Updated 08/19/2014 05:59 EDT

Why B.C.'s Murky Political Lobbying Industry Is So Troubling

The intertwining of lobbyists with a political party's fundraising apparatus is worrisome, because ultimately both sides risk developing a dependency on keeping the other happy and the money flowing. It rarely ends well.

Last year, 12,281 registered lobbyists roamed the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. -- a city that sees itself as the most powerful in the world.

Comparatively, one would imagine that British Columbia might have a few hundred or so at most. Yet, astonishingly, there were 2,717 registered lobbyists working the political backrooms in B.C. -- one for every five in D.C.

Trying to track their influence on provincial politics is a murky undertaking. The industry isn't just the suits hanging out their shingle because of who they may know or what political favours they may have performed. Today, it includes lawyers, accountants, trade associations, public relations firms, and community organizations.

Although far from foolproof, following the money is a little easier.

If the industry has some household names in B.C., Patrick Kinsella is one of them. Since 2005, Kinsella and two of his associated companies have donated $230,506 to the B.C. Liberals and zip to the NDP.

The national firms try to spread it a bit. Hill & Knowlton Canada forked out $72,380 for the Liberals, while Hill & Knowlton Strategies gave $13,450 to the NDP. Earnscliffe B.C. gave $64,136 to the Liberals and Earnscliffe Strategy Group gave $26,145 to the NDP.

Must be something about "strategy" and the NDP that lobbyists see and others don't.

But they're just one part of the industry. B.C.'s Registrar of Lobbyists counts 382 organizations with active registrations. And some of them have deep pockets.

The B.C. Road Builders and Heavy Construction Association has donated $129,341 to the B.C. Liberals since 2005, the Canadian Convenience Stores Association $7,600, the International Pharmacists Association coughed up $14,978, and North West Cruiseship Association docked in at $41,493.

The Progressive Contractors Association of Canada, which bills itself as "representing and supporting progressive unionized employers in Canada's construction industry," gave $18,200 to the Liberals and, ironically, nada to the NDP. The Canadian Bar Association covered its bases with $600 to the NDP and $1,075 for the Liberals, but the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C. went exclusively with the Liberals to the tune of $34,820.

All in, donors that had "association" in their name gave $3.36 million to the Liberals and $907,000 to the NDP. That's a lot of membership dues.

Then, for want of a better term, there's the "LLP" component to the industry -- legal and accounting firms -- who often have partners or associates who are registered as lobbyists as well. Add all those LLP designations up and another $1.34 million was donated to the Liberals. The NDP pocketed a paltry $89,800.

It seems to pay to be the party in power.

But something else is happening with political fundraising in the province that's highly worrisome: private, closed-door events where the promises are plentiful and the cover charge ain't cheap.

Last October, the B.C. Liberal party pocketed close to $100,000 following an exclusive $5,000 a plate dinner with Premier Clark. A registered lobbyist promised the 21 guests a "generous opportunity" to speak with the premier.

On the very day that the party deposited its windfall, it also reported two donations that were conspicuous for no other reason than their dollar amount. Diana Bennett and Scott Menke both cut the party cheques for $5,078. Bennett is the CEO of Paragon Gaming and Menke is its president.

Their donations came smack in the middle of the company announcing that it would take another stab at developing an urban casino resort in downtown Vancouver and its controversial hiring of former B.C. Lottery Corporation CEO Michael Graydon to lead that push. One of Paragon's past in-house lobbyists was former B.C. Lottery Corporation chair T. Richard Turner.

Ever wanted a legitimate reason to scream "fore" at five B.C. cabinet ministers? Up to 60 individuals had the chance, after laying down $1,000 each for a day of golf at the Sagebrush Golf Club in Merritt. A few more ministers and they could have paused for a cabinet meeting on the 18th hole.

The common thread between most of these high-priced, chummy events? Registered lobbyists buying or selling the tickets.

And it's that intertwining of lobbyists with a political party's fundraising apparatus which is troubling, because ultimately both sides risk developing a dependency on keeping the other happy and the money flowing. It rarely ends well.