Late last week, Quebec’s Directeur général des élections (DGE) announced it had uncovered forty cases of illegal donations to provincial political parties by the engineering firm Axor. (Although the DGE treated the donations as having come from three separate companies—Axor Experts-Conseils inc., Groupe Axor inc. and Axor Construction Canada inc.—for the sake of simplicity, I’ll treat them as one. If their names are any indication, it’s not like much thought went into distinguishing them from each other anyway.)
Looking them over, what struck me was the DGE’s reluctance to investigate what appears to be a well-oiled political donation machine at the company. That isn’t to say the scheme wasn’t crass—it doesn’t take a genius for a company to figure out it can get around the rules by reimbursing its employees’ donations. But the sheer numbers are still impressive: between 2006 and 2008, Axor used its employees’ names on 40 occasions—that’s more than once per month—to make a total of 55 donations. And while Jean Charest may be keen to point out all three parties got their mitts on Axor’s money, the donations show a clear preference for the Liberals.
Of the 55 donations worth a total of $152,500, 39 of those cheques were made out to the PLQ for a grand total of $113,500. Meanwhile, the PQ cashed in 14 donations worth $34,000, and the ADQ brought up the rear with two donations worth a combined $5,000. If Axor thought it was hedging its bets by throwing loose change at the opposition, it desperately needs a lesson in hedging.
As if 55 dubious donations from a single company over three years weren’t enough to raise eyebrows, there’s the fact this isn’t the first time the construction industry has been linked to illegal political financing schemes.
Between 1993 and 1996, the Montreal-based engineering giant Tecsult (it’s since been purchased by U.S.-based AECOM Technology Corp.), is thought to have illegally poured between $240,000 and $480,000 into the coffers of the PQ and the PLQ. The ruse wasn’t discovered by the DGE until 2002, when it was too late to investigate, but the company’s former president says everyone in his line of work was doing the same thing. More recently, Paolo Catania, the head of Frank Catania Construction, was found to have exceeded donation limits on four separate occasions since 2000. In all, Québec Solidaire says the Liberal party received nearly $400,000 in donations from people linked to the engineering sector in 2008 alone.
Charest’s reluctance to call an inquiry into the construction industry is well-documented and the DGE has so far been content to simply fine the overly generous. But even those already meagre penalties aren’t exactly as hefty as they might initially appear. Consider: Axor’s technically on the hook for $87,907 in fines for those 40 infractions. But when you subtract the money the company is getting back from the DGE, the total melts down to a much more manageable $8,607, or less than 10 per cent of the original sum. That’s because, until 2008, illegal donations in Quebec were returned to the donors. (Under the revised law, corporate donations are now handed to the Finance Ministry.) So at the same time as Axor will be cutting a cheque for $87,907, it will be cashing in two others for the amount of its political gifts for 2006 ($36,700) and 2007 ($42,600).
The real losers are the parties, especially the Liberals. They have to return all the money and, unlike Axor, get nothing back to offset it. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not arguing they should be allowed to keep it. But it seems like the donors are getting off mighty lightly here compared to the recipients: there’s no real fine to speak of, nor will there be an investigation to make sure their fits of generosity are tempered for good.