The advocacy group Democracy Watch wants a judge to overturn the decision that cleared Premier Christy Clark on allegations she was in a conflict when she helped solicit political donations that in part paid her salary top-up from the BC Liberal Party.
British Columbia’s conflict of interest commissioner Paul Fraser ruled in a May 2016 decision and an August 2016 addendum to the decision that the premier didn’t contravene the Conflict of Interest Act by receiving $50,000 annually from the BC Liberals while fundraising at exclusive party events where attendees paid as much as $20,000.
“The Commissioner’s decision... unreasonably concluded that donations made to attend the events and the annual salary drawn by the Premier from the BCLP were not a personal benefit for the Premier that are indirectly connected with the performance of her duties of office as prohibited under... the Act,” said the petition lawyers for Democracy Watch filed Oct. 25 in the Supreme Court of British Columbia.
“Our position is these high-priced exclusive fundraising events constitute a conflict of interest for any politician involved in them,” Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher said in a phone interview on Wednesday.
In Clark’s case, there was also a personal benefit since the BC Liberal Party was paying her, Conacher said.
In the petition, Democracy Watch asked that Fraser’s decisions on the complaints made by Democracy Watch and NDP MLA David Eby be quashed and sent to a substitute decision-maker for reconsideration.
There was a “reasonable apprehension of bias” regarding Fraser’s decision since his son “John Paul Fraser has personal ties to the Premier and is a senior member in the BC Liberal Party” who works for the government as the deputy minister for government communications and public engagement, the petition says.
Also, in 2012 commissioner Fraser recused himself from a complaint against Clark that former Liberal MLA John van Dongen made, the petition said. “The Commissioner’s admission in 2012 that there was sufficient perception of bias to recuse himself from ruling on a complaint concerning the Premier is inconsistent with the Commissioner’s refusal to recuse himself from ruling on the complaints made in 2016 by Mr. Eby and Democracy Watch.
“The Commissioner’s inconsistency is neither transparent nor intelligible,” it said.
And the decisions Fraser arrived at were unreasonable, the petition said. “The Commissioner unreasonably concluded that the Premier’s employment income derived from [the Liberal Party of B.C.], which is secured in part by her fundraising activities, does not create a private interest sufficient to conflict with her duties to the public as Premier.”
Clark would have known that the success of fundraising events she participated in would contribute to the ability of the party to pay her salary, it said. “It was unreasonable for the Commissioner to require a causal connection between the Premier’s salary and specific donations.”
It also argued that it is a conflict for Premier Clark to receive a salary that comes from large donors at the same time as the people of the province pay her.
“If large donations are consistently made by mining concerns who might stand to gain if the Province perpetuates its lax spill regulatory regime and continues not to enforce its spill regulations, for example, that is something the Commissioner must take into account,” it said.
“If the large donations are made by real estate developers who might benefit from lax regulation or advance notice of changes to property transfer tax rates, that is something the Commissioner must take into account.”
The salary from the party is an indirect benefit to Clark from people who pay for expensive entry tickets to party events, it said. “It is unreasonable to conclude that the high-dollar draw of the fundraisers does not arise from the Premier’s political power and influence or that the Premier’s salary is not paid in part for her attendance and participation at fundraising events.”
Therefore, it argues, Clark “accepted a personal benefit that is connected to her holding public office.”
The events themselves depended on the premier’s power and influence, it said. “The reason why [the party] is able to charge as much for event access tickets as they did is the draw of the political influence of a Premier sitting in office. It is absurd not to recognize that the ticket price is influenced by the power or anticipated power of the office holder.”
Conacher told The Tyee that ultimately the solution is to get big money out of politics and that B.C. should follow Quebec’s lead and limit donations to no more than $200 and only allow them from individuals.
Commissioner Fraser has 21 days to file a response to the petition with the court.
He was not in his office this morning and was unavailable for an interview.
A spokesperson for Clark said the premier would respond as required as part of the process, but otherwise won’t comment while the matter is under review.