Ontario’s ethics watchdog should launch an investigation into registered lobbyists who helped organize and sell tickets for Premier Doug Ford’s fundraising dinner earlier this year, according to an advocacy group’s complaint.
Democracy Watch alleges that lobbyists who helped with the fundraiser violated the law by putting Mr. Ford in a real or potential conflict of interest, depending on the decision the lobbyist sought.
“The fundraising assistance creates a sense of obligation on the part of the politician that makes it improper for the politician (or their staff) to participate in making the decision because the decision furthers the private interest of the lobbyist,” said a letter the group sent to Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake on Thursday.
The complaint comes amid heightened interest in ties between lobbyists and the Ford government. The Ontario Provincial Police’s anti-rackets branch is reviewing allegations of possible illegal lobbying made by former Progressive Conservative Party MPP Randy Hillier, who was kicked out of the party’s caucus in March. Last month, a private alcohol retailer threatened to sue a union that called for a police investigation into lobbying efforts relating to the government’s plan to liberalize beer and wine sales.
Earlier this year, The Globe and Mail reported that the PC Party enlisted registered lobbyists to help sell tickets to its $1,250-a-person Feb. 27 Leader’s dinner. In addition, several lobbyists, companies and industry groups said they felt under pressure to attend the event in order to maintain high-level access to the government.
The Globe obtained an e-mail from Chris Benedetti, a registered lobbyist at Sussex Strategy Group, encouraging clients to buy tickets. Mr. Benedetti said that he and two other Sussex lobbyists – Paul Pellegrini and Matthew Gibson – were on the event’s organizing committee.
In his letter, Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher called on Mr. Wake to investigate the three lobbyists, saying they are registered to lobby the Premier on behalf of clients.
Colleen Ryan, a Sussex Strategy Group spokeswoman, said: “We have long promoted such events for all political parties – PC, NDP and Liberals – and do so on a voluntary basis with no compensation or benefit from our voluntary participation. We take pride in our team’s professionalism and are committed to being compliant with all regulations relevant to our business."
Ivana Yelich, Mr. Ford’s spokeswoman, said the Premier is committed to following the rules. “We maintain the highest possible standard of ethics and put regular people at the centre of everything we do.”
PC Party spokesman Marcus Mattinson called Democracy Watch a “partisan front group backing the opposition and unions,” adding: “Their blatantly partisan approach does a disservice to real ethics watchdogs and at this point this group has made so many frivolous complaints we are no longer keeping track.”
Michelle Renaud, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Integrity Commissioner, said the office cannot disclose whether it is conducting an investigation.
Ontario’s Lobbyists Registration Act prohibits lobbyists from putting public office holders, including MPPs, in real or potential conflicts of interest.