An RCMP investigation into illegal political fundraising in B.C. is nearing its two-year anniversary and critics are frustrated the probe is dragging on after lobbyists acknowledged they were routinely funneling money to the party then in power on behalf of corporate and special interests.
Six weeks before the 2017 provincial election that led to the end of 16 years of Liberal rule, British Columbia’s assistant deputy attorney-general assigned prominent Vancouver lawyer David Butcher to provide legal advice to the Mounties as they began investigating details contained in a Globe and Mail investigation. That report found lobbyists were making political contributions under their own names and later getting reimbursed by clients or companies. “Indirect donations” were one of the few types of fundraising tactics that were illegal during that period when B.C. was known across the country as the “Wild West” of campaign finance.
After the story broke, the BC Liberal Party said it soon returned more than a dozen donations totaling $93,000, and the NDP gave back $12,000 to donors that funded the party while it was in opposition.
The Globe report prompted Elections BC to launch an investigation, which was subsequently handed over to the RCMP.
“The timing is unacceptable,” said Dermod Travis, executive director of IntegrityBC, a non-partisan political watchdog organization. “This should have been wrapped up in a year.”
Mr. Travis said the RCMP contacted him shortly after they began their probe and he handed over a spreadsheet he made of $1.2-million in questionable Liberal donations over the previous decade from known lobbyists and party insiders. He said he also found that almost $181,000 was donated to the NDP through questionable intermediaries during that period.
“There are still donations out there that should be returned,” said Mr. Travis, who added that neither the parties nor the lobbyists have disclosed who the people or businesses are behind the donations.
Duff Conacher, co-founder of the citizen advocacy organization Democracy Watch, said the people identified by the parties for making these illegal donations should already be charged. “The Liberals admitted the donations were illegal," said Mr. Conacher, who is also an adjunct professor of law and politics at the University of Ottawa.
Mr. Conacher noted Mr. Butcher’s investigation of the BC Liberals’ “quick wins” plan to woo ethnic voters ahead of the 2013 election, which was won by then-premier Christy Clark’s Liberals, took three years to get a breach-of-trust charge approved against a former government communications director for the illegal scheme.
On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Mounties was unable to provide details of the case other than it is continuing and no charges have been recommended. The B.C. Prosecution Service, which lays charges in the province, would not provide an update on Mr. Butcher’s work or a timeline of when the probe is expected to be finished.
“It is up to the investigators, once they have received any advice, to independently decide whether and how they should conduct the investigation, who should be investigated and what evidence to gather,” provincial Crown spokesman Dan McLaughlin said. “Should the RCMP, in the independent exercise of its discretion, decide to submit a Report to Crown Counsel for charge assessment and possible prosecution, the BCPS anticipates that a Media Statement will be issued at an appropriate time announcing the results of Mr. Butcher’s review.”
The BC Liberals, which announced it had returned $93,000 in “prohibited” indirect donations after the scandal broke, did not respond to requests for comment on three separate days earlier this week.
Raj Sihota, provincial director of the BC NDP, said her party had returned $12,290 in donations from seven donors and informed the provincial elections agency as well as the Canadian Revenue Agency of these actions in 2017. Once in power, the party also passed a bill banning corporate and union donations and set personal donation limits at $1,200.
Kendra Wong, a spokeswoman for the BC Greens, said her party banned corporate and union donations in September, 2016, and did not have to return any money to donors who made “indirect donations,” noting people giving to the party online have to confirm they are not doing so for another entity.