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Special prosecutor joins political fundraising probe in B.C.

Premier Christy Clark speaks during a Pink Shirt Day event at the Shadbolt Centre for Performing Arts in Burnaby, British Columbia, Wednesday, February 22, 2017. Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

A special prosecutor will assist the RCMP with its investigation into political contributions in British Columbia, a probe launched after a Globe and Mail investigation into BC Liberal fundraising.

Thursday's announcement of a special prosecutor to provide legal advice to the Mounties is the latest development involving political donations in a province that has come to be described as the "wild west" of campaign finance and where voters go to the polls in less than six weeks.

The Globe and Mail report, published earlier this month, found some lobbyists made political contributions under their own names and were later reimbursed by clients or companies. Indirect donations are illegal in British Columbia. The Globe report prompted Elections BC to launch an investigation into the fundraising efforts of the province's political parties, which was subsequently handed over to the RCMP.

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In appointing Vancouver lawyer David Butcher as special prosecutor, the assistant deputy attorney-general for British Columbia's Criminal Justice Branch chose a lawyer with experience in political cases. Mr. Butcher, who is in private practice, has served as a special prosecutor in the past, perhaps most notably in the case of a B.C. government communications director charged last year with breach of trust.

The RCMP, which has not offered a timeline for its investigation, requested the appointment of a special prosecutor earlier this week.

"The [assistant deputy attorney-general] concluded, based on the request and the information available about the alleged circumstances of the case that the appointment of a Special Prosecutor is in the public interest," the Criminal Justice Branch wrote in a statement.

It said Mr. Butcher will offer legal advice to the RCMP as necessary, make the decision on any charges that he deems appropriate and conduct any prosecution and subsequent appeal.

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Both the Criminal Justice Branch and Mr. Butcher declined to comment further.

A spokesman for the governing BC Liberals in a statement wrote the party is "committed to transparency, accountability, and ensuring that British Columbians can have confidence in our electoral financing system. …

"We have co-operated fully with Elections BC to date, and will co-operate fully if contacted by the RCMP or the special prosecutor."

The BC Liberal Party last week announced it would return $93,000 to donors who made what it described as "prohibited" indirect donations. In addition, the party said 30 people had advised it of "clerical errors" with their contributions. The party said it would report the matter to Elections BC, but it has not identified the donors. Emile Scheffel, the party spokesman, said he could not provide an update on Thursday, and Elections BC did not respond to a request for comment.

Political fundraising has emerged as a campaign issue ahead of the May 9 election.

In recent weeks, Premier Christy Clark has responded by announcing an independent panel to review the province's election laws, which impose few limits on who can donate, and none on the size of their donations.

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The Liberals have been criticized for, among other things, cash-for-access events with the Premier that donors pay thousands of dollars to attend. Ms. Clark was also criticized for accepting a $50,000 yearly stipend from her party, in addition to her salary as Premier.

She announced earlier this year she would no longer take the stipend but instead be reimbursed by the party for expenses.

The Liberals raised $12-million last year and more than $2-million so far this year.

Leonard Krog, the Opposition New Democratic Party's justice critic, said the appointment of the special prosecutor "demonstrates how serious this issue is" and that he has heard concerns from the public about political donations.

"I hear it on the doorstep, I hear it from folks, I hear it coming back to me before I raise the issue," he said in an interview.

British Columbia's NDP, which, like the Liberals, has launched a review of its donations after the Globe report, has returned about $12,000 in improper contributions to four donors, a party spokesperson wrote in an e-mail.

Dermod Travis, executive director of IntegrityBC, a non-partisan government watchdog, called the appointment of a special prosecutor a positive step.

Mr. Travis said his organization has been in touch with the RCMP and turned over a list of political contributions it found to be unusual in research it has done.

Kai Nagata, director of communications for the Dogwood Initiative, an environmental advocacy group, said his group discovered some unusual donations in its own research. It turned the information over to Elections BC, which then provided the records to the RCMP.

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