Christy Clark

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Dirty donation déjà vu

The scandal rocking B.C. politics got its start way back in 2001

I love all kinds of movies, but my hands-down favourites are about underdogs. Any movie where the little guy takes on a big, bad villain and wins gets a double thumbs up from me.

Most classic Westerns fit the bill: picture hapless frontier folk facing down greedy, well-armed bandits. While B.C. has recently been dubbed the “Wild West” of political cash, we locals have contended with unsavory shenanigans since at least 2001.

You see, although Dogwood “officially” launched our Ban Big Money campaign last spring, we’ve been trying to shine sunlight on B.C.’s sleazy political donations for more than a decade.

Once Upon A Time In The West

Back in 2006 after a comprehensive, line by-line review of BC Liberals’ 2001 and 2005 annual donation disclosure, Dogwood filed a complaint with Elections BC documenting how the BC Liberals systematically underreported donations in both 2001 and 2005.

Our investigation found the following:

  • Almost half a million dollars in donations ( >500 inaccuracies) the BC Liberal party failed to properly report in its 2001 financial disclosure as required by law.
  • Those mistakes amounted to almost a third of the $1.6 million donated directly to Liberal candidates in that election.
  • The BC Liberals hadn’t properly disclosed approximately six per cent of the party’s donations in 2001. The largest inaccuracies involved donations to candidates who later became cabinet ministers.
  • The BC Liberals’ 2005 financial report revealed similar systemic reporting mistakes.
  • Random spot checks of the NDP’s 2001 and 2005 filings did not reveal similar systemic reporting mistakes.

Elections BC responded to our complaint just as they did with recent allegations of illegal donations: by launching a comprehensive review of all parties’ donation reports.

The Searchers

The results were mixed. Elections BC confirmed the BC Liberals had violated the law in 2001, however, they chose not to impose a penalty. Elections BC stated in their May 16, 2006 letter to Dogwood:

“[We] concur that the [BC Liberal] party did not consistently report correct amounts for combined contributions… to the party and its candidates in the 2001 General Election … It was a systemic error that resulted in some contributions to some candidates not being included in the party’s combined report…”

But some good did come of it. Dogwood’s 2006 complaint had a big role in making sure all party donations are now available online in a searchable database: the Financial Reports and Political Contributions System.

Now with public pressure mounting, the BC Liberals have introduced legislation that would mandate “real time” disclosure of donations (instead of the current once-a-year disclosure). But their supposed efforts to increase transparency are too little, too late.

A Fistful of Dollars

Transparency alone wasn’t enough to rein in the sleaze in 2006, nor will it be in 2017. The reason British Columbia remains the Wild West is because the underlying rules are outdated or non-existent. While many provinces — and the federal government — have brought in tough new reforms, British Columbia laws have stagnated.

With lax enforcement of what few rules there are, the sleaze scale has increased dramatically: Last year donations over $100 accounted for $11.7 million of the BC Liberal party’s $12.15 million total. That included $1.7 million from just 11 top donors in 2016.

Right now in B.C. the picture is clear: it’s powerful corporations, lobbyists and high net worth individuals who are running the show.

But to double down on a cliché, there might be a new sheriff in town.

High Noon

This month Kathy Tomlinson reported in the Globe & Mail that a number of lobbyists made individual donations to the BC Liberals, then took reimbursements from corporations. That would break one of the few laws we do have, designed to stop people from concealing the true source of donations.

Lobbyists like Mark Jiles (whose clients include the B.C. Salmon Farmers’ Association) and Byng Giraud, (a lobbyist for Woodfibre LNG, an Indonesian firm hoping to build a gas plant near Squamish) admitted they paid for tables at fundraisers on personal credit cards, then billed the same amount back to clients.

That may just be the tip of the iceberg. Watchdog group Integrity BC has identified 727 suspicious donations to the BC Liberals, totalling more than $1.5 million. Those files have now been handed to the RCMP, which is taking over the investigation from Elections BC.

Dogwood has asked police to investigate donations by Kinder Morgan Canada president Ian Anderson, as well as six other lobbyists and staff connected to the controversial Trans Mountain expansion.

There are also allegations of irregularities related to $150,203 that accounting firm KPMG donated to the BC Liberals between 2005 to 2010. David McShane and Eric Watt are named in the Elections B.C. database as the KPMG executives who signed the cheques. But McShane died in 2004.

Watt, who acted as Premier Christy Clark’s financial agent in her 2011 leadership campaign, retired from KPMG in 2012. In 2014 the BC Liberal cabinet named him to the Knowledge Network board. KPMG also billed the provincial government $2,692,289 through April last year for accounting services.

With more such revelations appearing every day, public anger is approaching a tipping point.

True Grit

Back in 2006 we had to rely on mainstream outlets to publicize the issue, which they didn’t. Now Dogwood has enough supporters that the circulation of our e-mails, videos, blog posts and podcasts is starting to rival some media organizations.

Reporters are taking an interest, too. The New York Times, Globe & Mail, National Post, National Observer, CBC, Global, CTV, CKNW, Tyee, Metro and Vancouver Sun have all featured the current scandal in their headlines.

We haven’t won yet, but momentum is on our side.

Eventually the only option will be to ban big money from politics once and for all. When that happens, it will not be because political parties suddenly had an epiphany, but rather because people like you, and organizations like Dogwood and Integrity BC, organized a focused opposition demanding change.

Dogwood’s goal is simple: ensure whichever party forms government in May does so on a promise to fundamentally reform B.C.’s archaic political financing and access to government laws. With your help and some hard work, we know we can win.

If you want to put the big, powerful, arrogant, well-connected donors in their place, it’s going to take grit and determination. British Columbians like you and me are going to have to be the underdogs who force the issue and mobilize against any half measures that may be offered to distract us. We have to be the heroes of this story.

It will be a struggle, but we’re up for the challenge and we know you are too.