Aurelio Zen is a Venetian policeman headquartered in Rome. His reputation for integrity is a serious handicap to promotion within a treacherous political environment. His creator, Michael Dibdin, uses the Zen series to illustrate the inequity of a corrupt society where moving ahead with anything depends on who you know and what you can do to further their ambitions. The underlying theme—that corruption is acceptable and commonplace—is frightening to those without the power to pull in favours to achieve their goals.
Right, let’s set aside Zen for a moment and turn to the latest Tory brouhaha—the Chief Electoral Officer’s finding that the PC party and some of its constituency associations violated the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act 45 times since March 2010.
Section 35 of the Act makes it illegal for political parties to (1) accept direct contributions from a “prohibited corporation” (eg school boards, post secondary institutions, charities, provincial or municipal entities) or (2) accept indirect contributions from a prohibited corporation made by their employees and reimbursed by the corporation.
Of the 45 violations, 24 were direct contributions by a prohibited corporation and 21 were indirect contributions by employees of prohibited corporations. In both cases tax dollars intended to fund a public entity were siphoned off into the Tory re-election war chest.
The PC party is prepared to repay $17,000 in illegal direct contributions and has hinted that it may even voluntarily repay up to $100,000 in illegal contributions collected prior to Apr 2010, but it is bucking the Chief Electoral Officer’s ruling that it must return the illegal indirect contributions and wants those funds back.
Now here’s the part that would pique Zen’s interest. The total amount of indirect contributions is only $6900! An amount that pales in comparison to the $17,000 of illegal direct contributions let alone the $100,000 voluntary repayment.
Kelley Charlebois, executive director of the PC party, says it’s a matter of principle (chortle, sorry, editorial guffaw). He argues that the PC party didn’t know that the $6900 came from illegal indirect contributions and therefore it’s up to the donor, not the party, to pay it back.
He appears to be relying is on “finders keepers” principle or perhaps the “possession is 9/10ths of the law” principle, as opposed to the “rule of law” set out in section 35 of the Act. The only way Mr Charlebois can succeed with his argument is if he can show that the party did not know or ought not to have known that the contributions came from prohibited corporations.
As an aside, under corporate law even if a corporation did everything possible to prevent an act of fraud it still has to pay the fine and “disgorge” (a quaint legal word for “return”) the ill gotten gains. So the gosh-I-didn’t-know-it-was-happening excuse doesn’t cut it.
If Zen were on the case his next step would be to interview the employees of the prohibited corporations to get their side of the story.
Bill Robertson, the Mayor of Okotoks, says municipalities knew they couldn’t make direct contributions to PC party events, but it was widely believed that it was OK to reimburse officials who attended party fundraisers. “That was the way you lobbied your provincial counterparts. That was common practice. That was what everybody did”.*
Larry Spilak, the Reeve of the MD of Foothills, is even more strident. “Why are you going to the premier’s dinner? You’re going to support your residents. You’re going to have an opportunity to speak to the premier, to speak to the ministers about the issues in your area…public funds, but for the public good. It’s a very necessary thing in my opinion.”*
I see. Instead of picking up the phone and setting up a meeting with Doug Griffiths the Minister of Municipal Affairs, it’s acceptable to take taxpayer dollars out of a public entity’s bank account for a PC fundraiser. Furthermore, this fundraising/lobbying effort is “common practice” and a “necessary thing”. At this point Zen would raise a skeptical eyebrow.
There is only one explanation for PC party’s fierce defense of its right to keep the $6900 in illegal indirect donations, and in the process throw some small time public officials under the bus—there’s one heck of a lot of money at stake.
Zen would now start looking for the wild card. He’d focus on the yet-to-be-completed investigation of the $430,000 contribution from Mr Katz. You’ll recall the PC party divided Mr Katz’s generous contribution into smaller contributions of $30,000 or less and identified them as separate donations from Mr Katz’ corporation and family members.
True, the $430,000 Katz donation doesn’t violate the law against accepting contributions from a “prohibited corporation” but it may well violate section 19(1) which prohibits the PCs from accepting a contribution they knew or ought to have known would exceed the legal limit on donations. In this case the Chief Electoral Officer can make the PCs pay it back and that would be one heck of a hit to the bottom line!
Zen has his own definition of corruption which gives him some latitude to fast track a buddy’s building permit (he is Italian after all) but Albertans live by a stricter definition—corruption is an impairment of integrity, virtue, or moral principle; this includes obeying the law. Period.
One final point, if the concept of indirect contributions is so difficult to grasp then the Chief Electoral Officer would have uncovered violations not just on the part of the PC party but also by the Wildrose, the Liberals, the NDP, the Alberta Party and the Greens. And yet, not one of the other parties or their constituency associations violated this prohibition.
I wonder what Detective Zen would make of that.
*Calgary Herald, Feb 2, 2013, A4