Ontario Liberals defend donations from public agencies

TORONTO — The Globe and Mail

Premier Dalton McGuinty talks to hospital staff at Mount Sinai Hospital during a campaign event in Toronto on Thursday September 22, 2011. (THE CANADIAN PRESS / Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS / Nathan Denette)

Premier Dalton McGuinty and the Liberal Party of Ontario should not be accepting donations from publicly owned or funded agencies including hydro utilities, the opposition parties said Thursday.

Elections Ontario documents show Thunder Bay Hydro donated the maximum amount allowed – $1,244.32 – to the local Liberal riding association last year, at a time when electricity rates are soaring as the province spends billions to rebuild its electricity system.

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“We don’t take those donations, and I think Dalton McGuinty should do the same thing,” Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said after a campaign event in Toronto.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she was “quite shocked and surprised” that the Liberals are still taking donations from public utilities after vowing last year to stop the practice.

“When you pay your utility bill, you don’t expect part of your bill to be going to a donation to a political party,” said Ms. Horwath.

“Seems to me that there was a commitment made by the McGuinty Liberals that they were going to stop taking donations from public utilities or from even private utilities, as well as municipalities and other ratepayer organizations.”

Mr. McGuinty said he is confident the donations didn’t break any rules.

“There are stringent rules in place, and I would fully expect that those rules would be observed,” Mr. McGuinty said when asked about the appropriateness of donations from municipally owned utilities.

Robert Mace, president of Thunder Bay Hydro, said the utility does not make direct donations to political parties, but did pay to send top executives and board members to a speech by Liberal Energy Minister Brad Duguid.

“I can tell you unequivocally we don’t just make a donation,” Mr. Mace said in an interview.

“The only thing I can think that would be was when Brad Duguid was in, and up here you don’t see the minister very often, so when he comes to Thunder Bay we want to hear what he has to say about electricity policy.”

Mr. Mace believes the Liberals allocated money from the $200-per-plate dinner tickets to the local riding association, which is what other publicly owned utilities discovered last year when it was reported they too had donated to the Liberals.

“We attended the dinner and I believe a portion of that they end up counting as a donation,” he said.

When the issue first surfaced a year ago, the Liberal Party posted a note on its website saying it does not accept donations from public bodies, but that note was later removed from the party’s site.

Mr. McGuinty declined comment on the removal of the note.

“Again, I think the rules need to be followed,” was all the Liberal leader would say about the change on the party’s website.

However, a spokesman for Mr. McGuinty later said the note was dropped when the Liberals re-launched the party website and streamlined old sites, including the donations section.

The warning note was re-posted Thursday, said Mr. McGuinty’s press secretary Jane Almeida.

“We follow all donation rules, and have implemented our own higher standards above and beyond legal requirements,” said Ms. Almeida.

“The standards have always applied and the oversight has been corrected with the description of the higher standards now posted directly to our website.”

The donations section of the site now states that “the Ontario Liberal Party does not accept contributions from hospitals, colleges, universities, municipalities, or from any organization that receives public funding.”

But it turns out municipally owned utilities weren’t the only public agencies donating the maximum amount to a Liberal riding association. Municipalities did as well.

The towns of Marathon and Greenstone each donated $1,244.32 to the Thunder Bay-Superior North Liberal riding association in support of Northern Development Minister Michael Gravelle.

Marathon Mayor Rick Dumas said he and some councillors did attend a Liberal fundraiser for Mr. Gravelle, but also attend similar events for the Tories and NDP, and made no apologies for lobbying the people who are the voice of his community at Queen’s Park.

“Going to a function for the local MPP or for the other parties, supporting these individuals we believe are the voice of our region in Toronto, so we need to have their ear,” said Mr. Dumas.

“That little investment goes a long way at times.”

The NDP, however, said municipalities should not be using money from property taxpayers to donate to the Liberals.

“When you pay your property taxes, you don’t expect part of your property tax bill to be funding a political party,” said Ms. Horwath.

The donations of taxpayers’ and ratepayers’ money to the governing Liberals are not illegal, but certainly raise eyebrows among property tax payers and hydro rate payers.

Elections Ontario rules state any person, corporation or union may contribute up to $1,240 to any constituency association, but the total contribution to all constituency associations of the same party cannot exceed $6,200 in one year.

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