The Coalition of Progressive Electors accepted $12,500 in combined campaign contributions from a commercial real-estate company and left those amounts off the list of donations it released ahead of the November 15 election.
That information was made public during a December 14 meeting and confirmed by the Straight in interviews with several senior party members.
The donations in question are $3,000 from Canreal Management Corporation and $9,500 from the company’s president, Raymond Bergen.
Those donations, which account for roughly 18 percent of $70,000 that COPE spent during the campaign, have caused an uproar among members because in 2008 the party officially adopted a position that said it would not accept money from real-estate developers.
Paul Houle, COPE treasurer and a member since 1986, told the Straight that the $12,500 came in at least one week before a list of donors was released on November 4.
“The reason it wasn’t included in the disclosure to the media, it is a bit unclear why that happened that way,” he said in a telephone interview. “But clearly, those donations came in before disclosures were made in the news media.”
Houle confirmed that COPE spent Canreal and Bergen’s money. But he noted that according to the party’s financial agent, Margaret Panton, the party does not have to include it on its official list of contributions filed with Elections B.C. if the money is returned to the donors before a February 13 deadline.
The problem, Houle continued, is that COPE does not have $12,500 to give back to Canreal and Bergen.
He explained a recent vote by COPE’s executive to hire two part-time staffers has left the party in a situation where it is “financially unsustainable”.
“Right now, with the spending they want to do, with two half-time staff people, that would put us $1,500 in debt each month,” he said. “And that’s assuming that our monthly income stays the same, at approximately $2,500 per month.”
Houle said he doesn't know who made the decision to leave the $12,500 in question off the list of campaign contributions made public on November 4. But he noted it was COPE executive director Sarah Beuhler who drafted the information that was sent to media that day.
Beuhler did not respond to requests for an interview. The Straight also left messages for COPE organizing director Matthew Young and executive member Tristan Markle, among others. Those requests also went unanswered.
The individual responsible for tracking donations received by a political party is its financial agent. Within COPE, that position is held by Margaret Panton.
Panton declined a request for an interview. However, on December 14, she delivered a speech at a COPE meeting wherein she said members of the party’s executive “constantly challenged” her authority.
“They continued to dispute my authority, accused me of overstepping my mandate, and insisting they had this authority to [inaudible] my actions,” she said according to an audio recording posted online. "The legislation is clear, that all expenses must be authorized by the financial agent. This was repeatedly challenged and even ignored.”
Panton did not name Canreal or Bergen but said the money came from a “property management” company.
“Two campaign contributions cheques were obtained by direct solicitation of the candidates,” she said. “One, a company cheque for $3,000. The other, a personal cheque for $9,500 from the same company’s president.”
Panton noted that she did raise concerns about those amounts being left off the November 4 donors list.
“When the two contributions did not show up in COPE’s response for parties to disclose campaign contributions to the media prior to election day, my alarm bells went off,” she said.
Panton added she now regrets working with the party.
“Had I known the state of the governance of COPE prior to my agreeing to be financial agent, I would have never agreed to take this position,” she said. “I believe COPE members need to be very concerned about the governance of their organization.”
Panton also raised concerns about COPE’s compliance with the B.C. Employment Standards Act. She recounted how when she raised those concerns, a member of COPE’s campaign committee responded: “If the executive requires the advice of the finance committee or the financial agent, I’m sure they will inquire.”
"The arrogance, hubris, and irresponsibility of this statement is remarkable,” Panton said next. “This attitude has serious implications, not only because of the issue arising from points I’ve made regarding taking money from developers and noncompliance with governing bodies but also because of the risk of COPE losing its status as an electoral organization because it refuses to deal with Elections B.C. issues.”
Five COPE members the Straight spoke with for this story said they were not informed of the donations in question until after the November 15 election.
Among that group was Chris Green, a member of COPE’s finance committee. Asked about what role Beuhler might have played, Green said he didn’t know but added: “She is one of the two staff members [the other being Young] and one of the core people who were being trusted to run the campaign properly.”
Green noted that on November 23, COPE’s executive voted to return the $12,500, but he said it’s not clear how that can be accomplished given the party’s financial state. Green also suggested the damage to people’s perception of COPE has already been done.
“It’s disgusting that they accepted the donation in the first place, but then to cover it up,” he added. “It’s a small group of people who have control of the executive who seem to think that the real rules don’t apply to them.”
Keith Higgins, a COPE candidate for city council, similarly told the Straight that he and most COPE candidates were kept in the dark about Canreal’s money.
“I can’t speak to whether somebody was actually trying to cover something up, or whether it was an omission, or whether the list was compiled from old information,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s hard to know where to start. I’ve never been in the position of having lied to thousands of people before. But I think the first thing you do is honestly apologize and, secondly, try to make some sort of restitution.”
Anita Romaniuk, a COPE candidate for park board who resigned from the party’s executive on December 10, said she doesn’t know the circumstances of the Canreal issue. But she said that it was financial mismanagement that caused her to leave the executive.
“I was not happy with some of the decisions that were being made around the use of money,” she said. “I thought that they were planning to spend more than they should, given the inflow, given what money that we have coming in.”
Houle and Green both said that despite many COPE members today saying they want to return the $12,500 to Canreal and Bergen, it’s unlikely the party will be able to raise the funds required to do that before Elections B.C.’s deadline for the money to be counted as official donations.
COPE still owes former councillors David Cadman and Tim Louis $19,000 and $18,000, respectively. Those loans have remained outstanding since the 2002 election.