Rachel Notley, Alberta NDP cleared in ethics report on fundraisers

Ethics commissioner Marguerite Trussler does warn Alberta government of bad optics over pair of events

EDMONTON – Alberta’s ethics commissioner has cleared Premier Rachel Notley and the NDP in two fundraising investigations — including one in Ontario — but says they need to start thinking more about optics.

Ethics commissioner Marguerite Trussler, in a report issued Monday, expressed concern that both fundraising events were kept quiet from the public.

“The perception that only a chosen few are being invited is best avoided,” wrote Trussler.

Trussler’s investigation focused on two events that took place in February.

She had initially OK’d both fundraising events, but reopened her investigation Feb. 23 following a complaint from the opposition Wildrose party.

The first was on a Feb. 23 party fundraiser held at the Alberta Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton.

The main event was for $250 a ticket and was advertised on the party’s website.

However, some donors were selectively phoned or emailed and invited to a smaller pre-fundraising event at the art gallery that promised, for an extra $750, more one-on-one access to Notley and her ministers.

Trussler said at the very least both events should have been on the NDP party’s website.

“In general, as a matter of transparency, these fundraising events should be open to all,” she wrote.

The pre-event at the art gallery never went ahead after Trussler launched her investigation just hours before it was to take place.

The second event focused on Notley attending a private dinner in Toronto on Feb. 19 for a select group of fundraisers for Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

That event was not billed on tickets as including Notley, but donors who attended were informed beforehand. The ticket price was almost $10,000 and some of leaders who attended have business interests in Alberta.

Corporations and unions can’t donate to political parties in Alberta under a law passed last year by Notley’s NDP.

Trussler noted that the Ontario NDP picked up Notley’s travel expenses and that none of the funds raised would go to Alberta’s NDP.

But she questioned why Notley’s team did not announce she was going.

Legislature reporters in Edmonton were told Notley was going to Toronto that weekend to accept an award, which didn’t take place.

“It would have been better for the premier and her staff to have been open and proactively let it be known why she was in Ontario,” wrote Trussler.

Deputy premier Sarah Hoffman said the party would take Trussler’s concerns into account, but noted “she’s made it clear that the premier was exonerated of any wrongdoing, that we operated within the act and within the (ethics) legislation.

“Unfortunately it seems like the Wildrose keeps slinging partisan mud.”

Jason Nixon, the Wildrose critic for democratic accountability, said Trussler’s finding still raises concerns about the perception of the government selling access.

“If the premier did not have at least some feelings or a little bit of concern that this (Toronto trip) might be going close to the line, in my opinion she would not have chosen to keep it secret,” said Nixon.

The NDP has been caught twice before in fundraising controversies.

Last May, it was forced to backtrack after it tried to leverage the swearing-in of Notley and her cabinet into a party fundraising event.

In November, the NDP caucus apologized to the legislature chamber after it was revealed the party was promoting access to Notley in her role as premier at a Calgary fundraiser.