Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and the Liberal Party of Canada are defending a planned fundraising event at the office of a prominent Canadian law firm.
The fundraiser, which took place Thursday evening at the Toronto office of Torys LLP, cost $500 to attend. Billed as “a private reception with the Honourable Jody Wilson-Raybould,” it wasn’t publicly advertised on the Liberal Party website as many other fundraisers are.
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The event was criticized by Conservative MP John Brassard as “blurring the lines” between party and government business.
Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch and a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa, said that the event “amounts to the minister selling access to themselves to people who are stakeholders of the minister’s department.”
WATCH: The Liberals are being accused of selling access to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould at a fundraiser in Toronto
Wilson-Raybould told Global News that her appearance at the event was not a conflict of interest because she was attending as an MP and not in her role as the Attorney General.
“Like all members of Parliament, we engage members of the public. That involves a fundraising component, that’s why I’m here as an MP for Vancouver Granville,” Wilson-Raybould said.
Wilson-Raybould also said she didn’t believe Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s decision to end private fundraising will effect things at a federal level.
“The federal rules are very clear with respect to fundraising. I think that there are opportunities in other jurisdictions to put in place rules,” she said.
“We at the federal level are not allowed to accept donations from companies and unions. We have strict rules about individual donations and we are completely compliant with those rules.”
Complies with the Elections Act: Liberals
In an emailed statement, party spokesperson Braeden Caley said that the Liberal Party complies with the Elections Act in its fundraising activities.
“The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner was contacted in advance of the event and advised that there were no issues with MP Wilson-Raybould attending. As one would expect, all MPs have a role to play in attending events for their political party, and the Commissioner’s office recognized that fundraising is an important part of all MPs’ political engagement,” he wrote.
The office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson confirmed that they were contacted by Wilson-Raybould’s office, though said it was not until this morning, after stories about the fundraiser were already reported by several media outlets, including Global News.
“Based on the information available, there does not appear to have been a contravention of the Conflict of Interest Act,” said Dawson, though she noted that due to confidentiality considerations, she could not discuss what advice she may or may not have given to Wilson-Raybould.
Dawson’s office also said that she had first raised concerns about the rule governing fundraising back in 2010 and several times since, including recommending more stringent rules for ministers and parliamentary secretaries. It’s up to Parliament to change the rules, said her spokesperson.
According to Torys LLP partner Mitch Frazer, the event was not organized by the law firm – he rented the space in accordance with Elections Canada rules. “It’s just me personally hosting the event,” he said.
One Torys lawyer was recently registered to lobby the Justice Department on behalf of client Invesco Trimark, though the registration became inactive today – April 6, 2015 – according to the public registry file.
Prime Minister’s response
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked twice on Wednesday about whether it is appropriate for Wilson-Raybould to appear at this fundraiser.
On Wednesday morning in Montreal, he did not answer a direct question about the fundraiser, instead saying, “The Liberal Party has very strict rules around fundraising.” He noted that they do not permit union or corporate donations – though didn’t add at the time that these are prohibited by law.
“We as a party have always demonstrated a level of openness and transparency in how we have conducted our affairs and we will continue to set a very high bar on our expectations of how Canadians need to be able to see that politicians are accountable,” he said.
Wednesday afternoon in Trois-Rivieres, he was asked whether Wilson-Raybould should still hold this event and repeated that there are strict rules around fundraising.
He was also asked about whether this is an opportunity to buy access and didn’t answer directly.
“The fact is, the fundraising that political parties have to do has been reformed significantly over the years,” he said. “You can no longer take corporate donations. You can no longer take union donations. It’s individuals who can choose to support the candidates and the parties of their choice, but only to a maximum donation.”
“We are always open to suggestions on further electoral and political reform to continue to demonstrate the kind of openness and transparency that Canadians expect.”