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Town Was Duped into Donating to BC Liberals, Says Official

Kitimat wasn’t told of party fundraiser. Other towns have bought access knowingly.

Dee Hon 25 Apr
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MLA Roger Harris represents Kitimat

The BC Liberal Party has been funneling municipal tax dollars from B.C. towns into party coffers, according to financial reports filed with Elections BC.

An official from one of the towns claims his municipal government was duped into donating to the party. Other times, the situation was clear: several town officials have since told The Tyee they were using taxpayers’ money to buy access to the premier and provincial ministers.

Either way, the Liberal Party has been using its position in power to garner public money and fund its current election campaign.

Each political party in the province is required to file a list of its campaign donors with Elections BC. The documents provided contain thousands of entries, which do not have to be arranged in any logical manner, and are often illegible. The Tyee’s examination of the documents has so far revealed at least three municipalities that have donated to the Liberal campaign: Kitimat, Fort St. James, and Coldstream.

‘Didn’t think it was Liberal function’

In May 2004, the governments of several Northern B.C. towns received an invitation to a forum on economic diversification. The letterhead on the paper was from the Legislative Assembly of B.C. – government stationary, not the Liberal Party’s.

Officials from Smithers, Stewart, Prince Rupert, Kitimat, and Terrace were invited to hear from two aluminum industry executives, and a business professor from UBC. The cost was $30 per head. Only when the bill arrived were they told to make the cheques to the BC Liberal Party.

“We didn’t think it was a Liberal Party function,” said Kitimat’s municipal manager, Trafford Hall. Later, the town found out it was.

Hall said the event was just a way for the aluminum giant Alcan Inc., whose vice president spoke at the forum, to ingratiate itself with the Liberal government.

Kitimat is involved in a bitter legal fight with the B.C. government and Alcan over Alcan’s sales of publicly subsidized electricity to the United States. The town says the aluminum company is violating a 1950 agreement that gives it access to cheap electricity in exchange for operating the smelter. Kitimat argues the Alcan is starving the city of jobs because selling the electricity is more profitable than using it to smelt aluminum.

Hall said the forum allowed Alcan to befriend the Liberals while technically not violating company guidelines against donating directly to political campaigns. “It was just Alcan helping [local Liberal MLA] Roger Harris,” Hall said.

Kitimat taxpayers ended up helping Harris too, by donating to his party to the tune of $360.

Harris’ campaign manager Mona Nestor was stunned to hear Kitimat had donated to the Liberals in the midst of the feud. “Wow, you’ve got to be kidding,” she said.

Fort St. James donated for ‘opportunity to lobby’

The town of Fort St. James knew it was sending town officials to a Liberal fundraiser last year. The motion to attend won council approval on Jan. 14. Mayor Jim Togyi told The Tyee buying a $500 table at a Liberal fundraiser was a cost-effective way for the town to get the ear of visiting ministers.

“It saved taxpayers money,” Togyi said. Otherwise, he said, the town would have had to pay thousands of dollars for town officials to visit Victoria.

Togyi has ties to the BC Liberal Party. In 1996, Togyi lost the Liberal nomination for the riding of Prince George-Omineca to Paul Nettleton.

According to the minutes of a district council meeting on Jan. 28, Togyi argued the fundraiser was “an opportunity to lobby, exchange information and bring up issues” with the Liberal government.

Councillor Byron Goerz was the only one on council who disagreed.

“You’re giving directly to a partisan function here… to build up the coffers for the next election. I thought that was inappropriate,” Goerz told The Tyee.

Council minutes from Jan. 14 show the town arranged a separate meeting on Jan. 19 with Pat Bell, the mining minister and MLA for the neighbouring riding of Prince George North. Yet council still decided at that meeting to attend the Liberal fundraiser where the premier and other ministers would be present.

‘We had some grants in the works’

The District of Coldstream is upfront about why it paid $300 for officials to attend a Liberal fundraiser in 2003.

“The premier was in town,” said councillor Gary Corner. “We had some grants in the works.”

Corner said it wasn’t about supporting the Liberal party. It was about gaining access to Gordon Campbell and other officials.

“It’s so tough to get your face out there,” he said. Corner said his town was only doing what it took to get its voice heard.

Municipal officials who spoke to The Tyee expressed difficulty in getting the provincial government to listen to small town concerns. Liberal fundraisers were seen as a way to rub shoulders with key government ministers.

But why did the Liberal party invite town officials to fundraisers instead of arranging separate meetings for free? And who paid the travel costs for the premier and his ministers?

Tyee calls not returned

Liberal Party executive director Kelly Reichert did not return several calls made this week by The Tyee. Ministers Shirley Bond, Pat Bell, and Tom Christensen also did not respond to calls about fundraisers they attended.

In 2002, the BC Liberal Party cancelled a fundraiser after word spread it was soliciting donations from Vancouver public relations firms. For $10,000, company executives were offered the “undivided attention” of key cabinet ministers at an intimate luncheon.

Reichert told the CBC at the time, “We've been very clear to all the people that seek donations, and all the people that give donations, that all they should expect to get from that is that they're going to get better government.” According to BC Elections electoral finance officer Louise Sawdon, municipalities can legally donate taxpayers’ money to political parties.

“There is nothing in the [Elections] Act prohibiting that,” she said.

Vancouver journalist Dee Hon is a regular contributor to The Tyee.

[Ed. note: a correction has been made in this article's fourth paragraph, changing the mismentioned Fort St. John to the actual town in discussion, Fort St. James. Fort St. John was not involved in the situation.]  [Tyee]

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