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PostPosted: Sat Mar 29, 2008 10:57 am
 


$1:
Tracking candidates' cash can be curious exercise
Elections Canada could use a lesson in transparency

Kevin Libin, National Post
Published: Saturday, March 29, 2008


CALGARY -If you're ever curious about what goes on behind the scenes in a political race, Elections Canada's Web site is the first place you might look. There you will find, for instance, all the contributions candidates collect and where they spend it, disclosures required by law. For example, did you know that of the $15,371.82 that the successful candidate spent running for the Liberal nomination in Toronto Centre, more than half the expenses were charged by a supplier named Robert K. Rae? His friends call him Bob.

Those are the kinds of curious things you find poking around Elections Canada's database. What you won't find is an explanation of why Bob Rae charged his own nomination campaign eight grand. Or why his Liberal colleague from Vancouver Quadra, Joyce Murray, did the same thing -- charging herself for every last cent of the expenses incurred in her own nomination campaign. Ms. Murray and Mr. Rae both went on to win their byelections last week. But anyone looking to see the financial details of their effort is out of luck.

Here's what Ms. Murray's returns tell us: She raised $1,300 and spent more than $12,000, all of it (according to the documents) on July 4 -- three months after the nomination race ended. The sole supplier of all goods and services, from advertising to telephone lines, was Joyce Murray. Nearly half of it was spent on something itemized only as "Hono?" Another $145 was spent on something called "M?". Weirder: Ms. Murray's campaign expenses add up to a strangely perfect round number: exactly $12,700. Exactly. To the penny. And none of the $1,300 that was raised went to pay off the expenses. No wonder it all seemed so strange to blogger Steve Janke, who, to give credit where it's due, first raised the impenetrability of the documents last week. That's because it is strange.

Ms. Murray's financial agent (the person signing off on all reporting) is a man by the name of Martin Eady. You probably won't find a more qualified individual. Mr. Eady is director of corporate finance for the B.C. Securities Commission, and so, something of an expert on public accountability. He's also served as financial agent for Liberal MP and former Cabinet minister Ujjal Dosanjh.

He's not out to fool anyone. When I suggested that Ms. Murray's public filing doesn't really tell anyone anything about what went on with her campaign money, Mr. Eady laughed and agreed: "No, it doesn't."

Over the phone, Mr. Eady tries explaining what happened. It requires a lot of explanation: Ms. Murray decided she wanted to focus on winning the nomination, not raising money, so she financed the campaign herself. That's why she's the sole supplier. Mr. Eady says he even prepared a return showing the original suppliers -- the copy place, the phone company, Pizza Hut, and so on -- but was told to redo it: since Ms. Murray paid for the expenses personally, she was to be listed as the supplier. Mr. Eady also e-mailed me the final documents he sent to Elections Canada, where "Hono?" is actually clearly typed in as "Honorarium"-- remuneration, he says, for Ms. Murray's campaign manager -- and "M?" as "Meals"; he can't figure out why Elections Canada's version is different. As for the conveniently round number of $12,700.00, Mr. Eady recalls that Ms. Murray had budgeted that as a fixed amount ahead of time. After all costs were accounted for, she took whatever was left in the $12,700 budget and paid it to her campaign manager -- the honorarium in question.

Sounds reasonable enough. Mr. Eady says the filings were even audited, and there's no reason to doubt his integrity or that of Ms. Murray, a former provincial Cabinet minister. Elections Canada confirms that the entire financial report appeared up to code (except for the Hono? and M?, which

they couldn't explain and said would have led to a phone call to Mr. Eady once they did their standard review). Joyce Murray's campaign, the government agency says, is now in debt. She has a year-and-a-half to raise the money privately to repay herself for all her supplies, or she'll be violating the rules that cap individual donations.

Then again, section 478.22 (d) of the Elections Act allows candidates to write off "uncollectible debts, in accordance with the creditor's normal accounting practices." So, who's to say someone less ethical than Ms. Murray might someday argue that they can't collect the money from themselves, skirting the donation limits? With this kind of murky financial reporting, would anyone even notice? And Mr. Eady notes that when candidates are turned into re-sellers of goods to their own campaigns, as far as he can tell, "there's nothing to stop someone" from using the campaign to make a profit -- buying a pepperoni pie at Pizza Hut for $15 and charging the campaign $50 (though Ms. Murray didn't, and he has the receipts to back it up).

Above all, none of this changes the fact that Ms. Murray's public documents still tell us, the voting public, nothing about where her money came from and where it went. And isn't that the point?

Ms. Murray's returns aren't even the worst: Her rival for the nomination, Catherine Evans, left her supplier column entirely blank in her financial statements, and categorized every single expense as "miscellaneous."

"If there are no teeth in the rules, and they can just be ignored by those who go through the process, then those rules need to be tightened up considerably," says Ross McNichol, a Calgary CA who has served as a financial agent in the past. "[Joyce Murray] identifies less than half of the total $12,700 by category, and over 25% of that is referred to as 'miscellaneous' ... If Elections Canada has designed their reporting system to provide information to the public, and if this passes for proper disclosure, then I would have to say they have failed miserably, if only about 20% of the total spending has to be identified by broad category, and the real suppliers remain unidentified." He calls the filings "a pretty sad package."

Canada's election laws were changed a few years ago to require this kind of public reporting of fundraising and spending on nomination campaigns. Whether it should have been or not, is questionable: nomination races, after all, are relatively small affairs and arguably more the private business of parties than the public. But it's the law now. Candidates and their financial agents are at risk of thousands of dollars in fines and up to five years in prison by "providing a document containing false or misleading information or that is substantially incomplete ... " according to the Act.

If this is the kind of reporting that Elections Canada considers adequate, maybe the government is the one misleading us, pretending these documents constitute some level of transparency. Plainly, they don't. So, maybe Elections Canada should just stop forcing candidates to endure the trouble and expense of publicly filing their nomination details altogether. As Ms. Murray's example-- and others --confirm, as matters of public disclosure, they often disclose little and are useless to the public.

klibin@nationalpost.com


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