Elections Canada doesn't have Quebec's powers to dig up illegal financing

OTTAWA – Elections Canada says under its current powers it would not be able to investigate fully the kind of illegal political donations being exposed in Quebec.

“They have the facility, the ability, they have the powers to do that, (but) we don’t have similar powers,” said John Enright, a spokesman for Elections Canada and its investigative arm, the commissioner of Canada elections.

“(Commissioner Yves Cote) is asking for them now, clearly; he’s asking for the power to compel witnesses, which would go a long way to help speed up the investigative process.”

Quebec’s chief electoral officer has been given extra latitude to study who has been giving donations to the province’s political parties. That office can now cross-reference its files on political contributions with those of the provincial tax agency.

That’s allowed Quebec’s elections watchdog to identify industry groups where employees have contributed en masse, possibly signalling the use of the so-called “borrowed names” system. In that scheme, a donor asks family and staff to write cheques to a party, and then reimburses them afterward — a practice that is illegal federally and provincially as it circumvents the personal donation limits.

“You’d have to have some kind of a match, some kind of ability to match the donor,” said Enright.

“All we get is your name and your address, and the amount contributed. But you’re not going to get that … this individual works for corporation X, Y or Z.”

Earlier this week, former Quebec construction boss Lino Zambito told CBC News that in 2008 he collected nearly $30,000 in cheques from friends and staff for the Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ), later reimbursing them.

Former party fundraising chairman Leo Housakos, now a Conservative senator, and former ADQ leader Mario Dumont have both denied knowing of such wrongdoing. Zambito responded by challenging the two men to testify before Quebec’s corruption inquiry to that effect.

Montreal lawyer Mario Charpentier, a former ADQ executive, is fighting two fundraising infractions in Quebec for allegedly helping two individuals make contributions to the party in 2008.

A Canadian Press analysis showed staff from several engineering consulting firms donating to one federal Conservative riding association in 2009, helping to swell the coffers to $288,823 despite the party placing fifth there in the previous election.

There is nothing illegal about an individual employee making a contribution, but Quebec’s chief electoral officer told The Canadian Press this week that a pattern of several employees from one company pitching in would cause the watchdog to take a closer look at what’s going on.

In addition, the Charbonneau commission of inquiry into contract corruption in Quebec has the power to compel witnesses to testify, as do investigators for the province’s chief electoral officer.

The commissioner of Canada elections in his annual report this week called on Parliament to give him that same power.

Currently, an individual with information or under investigation can refuse to co-operate. Three different people refused to play ball with the commissioner in the investigation into misleading calls made to voters in the 2011 election — also known as the robocalls case.

“Frequently, key individuals will simply refuse to be interviewed or they will initially accept, only to later decline,” Cote wrote in his report.

“In some cases, they will participate in interviews but will provide only partial information and incomplete answers, often citing a faulty recollection of events or the inability to retrieve key documents.”

Allegations that a relative of former Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro used the borrowed name system surfaced last year.

The Ottawa Citizen reported that employees of David Del Mastro alleged they were asked to make contributions to the MP’s campaign in 2008, and were later reimbursed. David Del Mastro has denied the allegations, chalking them up to a disgruntled former employee.

No charges have ever been laid in connection with the allegations. Del Mastro is facing Elections Act charges in court in a separate matter involving alleged overspending in the 2008 election.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.