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Bonnie Crombie running a risk with developer campaign donations, experts say

Ten executives at a single development corp donated more than $30,000 to Crombie, records suggest
Bonnie Crombie is photographed on the steps of the Ontario Legislature, in Toronto on Thursday, May 18, 2023.

Ontario Liberal leadership candidate Bonnie Crombie is tapping into a fundraising pool of land development and construction firms that have recently donated generously to the Progressive Conservatives and municipal candidates in the Greater Toronto Area.

According to The Trillium’s analysis of the five leadership candidates’ fundraising records, Crombie’s stands out from the others for ties to the development industry. Her donors are also more generous on average than those of her competitors.

Some donations made to her appear to be co-ordinated; the records show groups of donations from the same company, or the same family, around the same time, in matching amounts.

One group stands out: names matching 10 executives at HBNG Holborn Group, a land developer and builder based in Vaughan, appear on her donor list. Each donated the maximum amount, $3,350, and nine of the 10 donations were made over three days in late June.

It’s a practice some campaign finance experts say violates the spirit — but not the letter — of the law in Ontario. Corporate donations are illegal, but there is no prohibition against accepting donations from multiple individuals associated with the same company, as long as the funds are their own.

For her part, Crombie told The Trillium she is “strictly adhering to the laws of our province.” 

Robert MacDermid, a retired York University political science professor who’s studied the influence of developers’ campaign donations, said it’s not unusual to see co-ordinated donations that get around the individual donation limit. 

“I think it's an attempt to get close to the leader and to have the opportunity in the future to influence decisions,” MacDermid said, speaking generally of grouped donations.

In many cases, you’ll find members of those groups have donated to other parties in the past, suggesting the donors were not motivated by a typical partisan interest, he noted.

In this case, eight people with names matching HBNG Holborn Group executives have donated $20,000 to PC causes, including Doug Ford’s leadership campaign, over the past five years, and one gave $480 to the Liberal party. 

MacDermid noted that the Elections Ontario records show only the donors’ names, so it is not possible to conclusively say each of the ten people who donated is the same person as an executive at that company with that name. The company did not return The Trillium’s request for comment before this story was published.

However, people with those names have also donated generously to municipal politicians in the past. 

In the 2022 election, seven donated to multiple candidates in different municipalities, each giving to from five to 12 different candidates, totalling more than 60 donations. 

In many of these cases, the records show other donations from people with the same last names who live at the same address donating at the same time.

For instance, Crombie, who is the mayor of Mississauga, received 10 donations of the maximum — $1,200 — from people whose names match executives of the HBNG Holborn Group, and others living with them, in the 2022 municipal election campaign. She forfeited two others with matching names, but no address included, to the city clerk.

An HBNG Holborn Group company made headlines for its relationship with a different mayor a few years ago. Maystar General Contractors, one of its subsidiaries, was involved in a controversy where it was alleged to have helped the former mayor of Vaughan, Michael DiBiase, with his cottage, and he helped the company get a city contract. DiBiase eventually pleaded guilty to a Municipal Act offence.  

In a statement, Crombie told The Trillium she only accepts contributions from individuals and only to a maximum of $3,350, per the law.

“We are not soliciting donations from businesses and we would not accept them if offered,” she said.

Both MacDermid and Zack Taylor, an associate professor at Western University who studies cities and campaign finance, said they were not surprised to see Crombie attract donations from the development industry, given her successful career in municipal politics. 

“I think we can understand why we would see developers interested in donating, especially to municipal election campaigns, they have a strong incentive to do so in order to have visibility with candidates that may get elected,” he said. “And of course, unlike a lot of actors that we see at the local level, developers are companies that have lots of money. So they're in a position to make large donations.”

Mayors have to develop their own personal fundraising networks to succeed whereas MPPs and MPs — like Crombie’s opponents in the leadership race — can rely more on their parties until they go out on their own to seek the leadership, Taylor said.

One Peel-area councillor told The Trillium they turned down cheques from a development company, refusing the unsolicited funds because they did not want to feel beholden to the company.

The councillor said it’s common to be approached by developers, sometimes through a middleman, with offers of campaign donations and fundraisers.

“You'll see a lot of developers starting to approach you — people that you never knew, that you have no idea why they're trying to make a donation to your campaign,” said the councillor, who asked for anonymity to avoid political reprisal. 

Crombie has accepted other donations that appear to be linked to development companies. Two of the donors’ names match those of executives at Solmar, a residential development company run by Benny Marotta.  

Another group of donations came from five people with the same last name, one of whom shares a full name with an executive at Westhaven Group, a property investment, development and management firm. 

Neither Solmar nor Westhaven Group responded to The Trillium’s request for comment before publication.

Her records also show donations from the construction industry from donors who have a history of donating to the Ontario PCs. Another group of donations — at least five, each for $2,500 — appears co-ordinated and associated with the head of Rafat General Contractor, a recipient of municipal contracts in Ontario. It did not return The Trillium’s request for comment.

Asked if she believes Ontario’s political financing rules need to change, Crombie didn’t answer directly but touted the Liberals’ record for strengthening the rules and accused Ford of “work(ing) to sidestep or diminish at every opportunity. 

“It was a Liberal government at Queen's Park that changed the law in Ontario to make corporate and union donations illegal,” she said. “Only individuals can make political donations in Ontario. This was the right thing to do. I am proud that my party made this change to Ontario's election laws.”

She also accused Ford of using the government to advance the interests of donors and insiders above the interest of Ontarians, citing the controversies over developers’ presence at his daughter’s stag and doe and wedding. 

“It's the same donors who aim to profit $8 billion from Doug Ford selling off our precious Greenbelt,” she said. 

“Ontario deserves better. I would end this cronyism and corruption.”

The ongoing Greenbelt controversy has spotlighted developers and their donations at Queen’s Park and Crombie’s not the only one levelling fiery rhetoric at the premier.

This week, interim Liberal leader John Fraser held a press conference to slam the Ford government over the damning auditor general’s report that found government-friendly developers will receive an estimated land value uplift of more than $8 billion as their properties have been removed from the protection of the Greenbelt. 

Asked how he believed Ford and his party benefit from the deal, Fraser told reporters to look at PC party donations and trace the connections between the developers and their contractors and subcontractors, all benefitting from the government’s decision to build Highway 413 and open swathes of the Greenbelt.

“It's a quid pro quo,” Fraser said. “Just take a look at their fundraising records. Very clear.”

Given the rhetoric at Queen’s Park, developer donations may expose Crombie to some political risk, MacDermid and Taylor agreed.

Both academics also noted that it can be difficult for developers’ campaign donations to come to light because only the name of the donor is publicly known and proving connections between donations is not always possible.

When it does hit the public radar, it can be damaging.

“Planning and urban development issues are top of mind during our housing crisis. There's a lot of back and forth about land ownership and whose land ownership is being taken into account when decisions to release land for development are taking place,” Taylor said. “And certainly that can create perceptions of undue influence or the potential for future undue influence if Bonnie Crombie were to become premier.”

“The onus then becomes on (her), saying, ‘Well, I'm not actually in the pockets of these groups.’”

MacDermid said that developers’ donations generally become known when there’s a development-related controversy. He stressed that is true for both the Liberals and the PCs, who’ve accepted developer money and then faced heat over their land-related decisions.

Ford’s Greenbelt criticism is not unlike what former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty faced back when it was created, with some voters becoming suspicious about who he’d had fundraising dinners with and who’d benefitted from the government’s decisions, MacDermid said.

The Peel-area councillor who’d turned away developer donations agreed that Crombie is running a risk by accepting them.

“Right now, what Ontarians need is a leader, of whatever party, that they can have trust in, that they know that they are not in the pockets of developers,” the councillor said. 

“They're seeing that with the current government. If that's the case for Bonnie, then how are you building that trust with the citizens of Ontario that you would do something differently when your actions are the same?”

As of Aug, 17, Crombie recorded $493,065 in donations, compared to $207,976 raised by Nate Erskine-Smith, $194,932 by Ted Hsu, $128,175 by Yasir Naqvi and $72,746 by Adil Shamji. 

Her average donation amount is $1,748, while her competitors range from $704 to $957. She also leads in terms of the number of donations: 282 to Erskine-Smith’s 235.



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