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Elections BC Policies Hurt Ability to Track Political Donors, Says Watchdog

Latest reports show discrepancies on how contributions are classified.

Darryl Greer 5 May 2016TheTyee.ca

Darryl Greer is a Vancouver-based journalist and musician. Find his previous stories for The Tyee here.

Lax Elections BC policies allow political parties to report contributions in ways that make it harder for the public to track donors, warns the head of Integrity BC. 

The April 5 report on political donations revealed a number of cases where the Liberals and NDP classified donations in different ways, making it difficult to keep track of donors.

The Liberals, for example, reported no donations from non-profits in 2015.

Yet a closer review of the party's filing reveals contributions from several non-profits, including $1,200 from the Chinese Federation of Commerce of Canada, which describes itself online as "a non-profit and non-political organization formed by a group of business immigrants in 1989."

The BC Liberals also received a $370 donation from the Salmon Arm Folk Music Society, which touts itself as "a non-profit charitable organization" that puts on the annual Salmon Arm Roots & Blues Festival.

The BC Liberal Party placed the donations in the "Other category."

Neither non-profit nor the BC Liberal Party responded to interview requests.

The Vancouver Taxi Association is placed in the "Other" category by the Liberals, while the NDP reports its donations under "Non-profit" and "Corporate" categories.

There are other discrepancies in classification, including donations to both parties from the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C., B.C. Doctors of Optometry, the B.C. Care Providers Association, the B.C. Maritime Employers Association, the B.C. Real Estate Association, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the B.C. Professional Fire Fighters Association and a host of others.

The discrepancies are evident over several years.

Jodi Cool of Elections BC said the agency is doing a "compliance review" of this year's contributions and was unable to explain the discrepancies in the way the Liberals and NDP classify donations from a host of contributors that give money to both parties.

"The Election Act says that they are required to record a classification for every contributor," she said. "Some of the classification categories are somewhat similar, so depending on the information the contributors have provided to the party, there could be a bit of a disconnect between what is reported by one party towards another.

"There's no definitive list that we have to guarantee the classifications of these organizations," she said.

The Election Act doesn't include penalties for misclassifying contributions

The BC Liberals did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

NDP applies rules 'as best we can'

Trish Webb of the NDP said she didn't know why the parties differed on classifying identical contributors with conflicting designations.

"We would obviously be interpreting the rules in one way and the Libs are interpreting them in another way," Webb said in phone interview. "We apply the rules as best we can. Unless Elections BC comes back and says, 'You have miscategorized it,' there's no understanding that we've done something wrong."

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, for example, has contributed $10,375 to the NDP since 2012 and $74,100 to the Liberals. The NDP categorized the group's donations as "Non-profit" and the Liberals as "Other."

Webb was unaware that the CAPP had given money to the NDP.

"The petroleum producers, I'm sure they didn't give us any money," Webb said, adding that "they are an association and they're not a corporation" when told about CAPP's donations to her party.

Despite the confusion, Webb said that non-profits and corporations make up a small portion of her party's total contributions.

"Whichever way you cut it, we do not rely on corporate donations," she said.

Dermod Travis with Integrity BC said the discrepancies could be as simple as a new staff member not being sure about how to classify donations.

But they could also suggest an effort to mask the true nature of contributions and make them less obvious to the media and watchdog groups like his.

"There seems to occasionally be an attempt to try to put donors in places where people like yourself and myself won't find them that easily, and that is a concern," Travis said.

Elections BC has a searchable database of political contributions on its website.

But Travis noted that parties can make it harder to find information on donors.

"It's done through a variety of different ways including misspelling words, adding middle initials to people's names so you'll see individuals that have a middle initial and then suddenly they don't," he said. "When you do an online search for them, you won't necessarily get all of the results."

According to a recent Insights West poll, 86 per cent of British Columbians support a ban on corporate and union donations in the next election.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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