Records of donations to the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario last month show the party benefited from what appears to be more than $50,000 in contributions linked to a single developer, in tickets to a single fundraiser.
It's a revelation that an opposition critic is calling a sign that the cash-for-access fundraising scandal has returned to Ontario, and comes on the heels of the PC government changing political donation laws earlier this year to allow bigger-money contributions.
An analysis of Elections Ontario's political contributions database by QP Briefing shows eight people with names matching those of executives at Empire Communities each donated an amount equivalent to two tickets to a June fundraiser — $3,200 — shortly before it was held, and another eight people who share a surname with the brothers who serve as president and CFO of the company did the same.
The deposits were made over 11 days, from June 14 to 24, and total over $50,000.
An ad for the June 24 fundraiser promised paying guests "an intimate and candid discussion" with Premier Doug Ford and MPP Rod Phillips over Zoom. (Phillips, the province's former finance minister, was promoted back into cabinet as minister of long-term care on June 18.)
"You will not want to miss this rare opportunity to connect with the Leader on the issues facing our province during these challenging times," it said.
QP Briefing cannot confirm the relationships between each of the donors and the developer, as both Empire Communities and the PC party have declined to comment on the identity of the donors, nor whether they attended the fundraiser in question. Laws around political fundraising in Ontario, unlike federal laws, do not require parties to disclose which donors attended which fundraisers.
However, the NDP and the advocacy organization that helped uncover the pattern say it raises red flags.
"It would seem with these specific donations coming to light, that Doug Ford's found a backdoor way to allow his deep-pocketed donors to max out contributions, essentially, making it almost unlimited around how much these folks can donate to Doug Ford and his PC party," said ethics critic MPP Taras Natyshak, who described the situation as "super fishy."
"It just goes to show you who he's working for, and whose connections get access to the premier. First and foremost, it's those who are willing and able to pay those huge prices."
Natyshak said he's concerned about the apparently co-ordinated pattern of the donations and he's calling on Ford to explain exactly what his relationship is with Empire Communities.
To be clear, there's nothing illegal under Ontario's campaign finance laws about co-ordinating donations. A spokesperson for Elections Ontario said that while donations from corporations are now illegal, contributions are allowed if they come from an individual who is "normally a resident in Ontario [and] using their own funds."
"While contributors are no longer required to certify that their contribution comes only from their own funds, the Election Finances Act continues to prohibit contributors from donating funds that are not their own," the spokesperson said in an email. "No registered political party may knowingly accept contributions directly or indirectly from an ineligible contributor."
That's another point of concern for Natyshak. The Ford government eliminated a requirement brought in by the Kathleen Wynne Liberal government following its cash-for-access scandal that donors certify that the funds they've donated are their own. Elections Ontario will only investigate the source of donations if a complaint is made.
"This is a classic case of why we were concerned with those changes in the first place," said Natyshak.
He also said the fundraiser in question is the same kind that caused the cash-for-access scandal for the last Liberal government — just on Zoom. "It's $1,000 to get face-to-face with the premier," he said.
In 2016, the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail exposed the practice of Liberal cabinet ministers hosting high-price fundraisers with stakeholders in their own ministries, trading cash for access to powerful decision-makers.
Following the headlines, the Wynne government passed legislation banning corporate and union donations and reducing the donation limit for individuals from $33,250 to $3,600 – $1,200 to a party, $1,200 to the candidates of a party in an election period and $1,200 to the constituency associations or nomination contestants of a party. The new law also prohibited MPPs, candidates, party leaders, nomination contestants, leadership contestants, and some political staffers from attending fundraising events, and required donors to certify the contributed funds were their own.
The Ford government has reversed some of those changes. Corporate and union donations remain banned, but the prohibition on attending fundraisers has been lifted, as has the certification requirement. Legislation passed in February increased the personal donation limit for a second time, to $9,900.
QP Briefing contacted the offices of Ford and Phillips with some specific questions and requested comment on the concerns raised by Natyshak, but was referred to the PC Party. The party's communications director responded but declined to address the specifics. "Each donation follows Ontario’s election financing laws — individuals cannot exceed $3,300 in donations per calendar year," said Stephanie Bellotto.
Empire Communities has declined to respond to multiple calls, voice mails and emails over several days and while one press contact initially promised to respond, she became unavailable in the days that followed.
Empire Communities is a residential developer that has built over 28,000 homes over the past 28 years in Ontario and the U.S. It recently announced plans to develop, build and operate purpose-built single-family and multi-family homes in Georgia, Texas and Ontario.
The company was involved in a political donations controversy in Toronto when the premier's brother Rob Ford was mayor. The city's lobbyist registrar found the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD) placed Rob Ford in a conflict of interest when it held a fundraising event at the home of Paul Golini Jr., a co-founder of Empire Communities and then chair of BILD, and collected about $20,000 in cheques to the mayor's campaign fund as part of its lobbying strategy.
Empire Communities was created in 1993 through a partnership between Golini Jr. and Daniel and Andrew Guizzetti, brothers who are now the company's CEO and CFO. It stemmed from a business partnership between Golini’s father and the Guizzettis’ uncle, according to the Ontario Home Builder's Association. The company shares a history and a head office with York Excavating, founded by the elder Guizzetti, Santo. The names of four executives with the York Group of Companies also appear on the list of people who donated $3,200 to the PC party in the same period in June. QP Briefing was not able to secure comment from York Group by deadline Friday, receiving no responses to phone and email messages.
The pattern of donations was partially uncovered by the Ontario Health Coalition (OHC), an advocacy group that opposes for-profit health care. When the group learned that Phillips would be hosting a high-priced fundraiser less than a week after being made minister of long-term care, it was concerned that for-profit LTC companies would use it to exert influence — as some of those companies have been generous with political donations in the past.
The OHC researched the names on a list of donors who contributed the price of one or two tickets ($1,600 and $3,200) to the PC Party in the lead-up to the fundraiser, discovering multiple executives from Empire Communities and the York Group of Companies. But it found relatively few connections with long-term care. The board chair of Extendicare — one of the biggest LTC companies in Ontario — was on the list, but had made previous donations to Phillips, supporting him long before he was assigned to the LTC file.
Executive director of the OHC, Natalie Mehra, said what her group found is still concerning, including connections to developers, financial services companies and law firms, some of which have done work in the for-profit long-term care industry. That's why she sees a problem with the Ford government's decision to increase donation limits and loosen the campaign finance laws.
"You can see that those who have a lot more money benefit from the doublings of the amounts that they're able to donate," she said. "And that tilts the balance in favour of parties and individual candidates who are closer to wealthy interests — and not necessarily the public interest."
Below, find a table of the Elections Ontario donations records mentioned in this story — donors with names matching executives at Empire Communities and York Group of Companies, as well as those who share a last name with them, with information from publicly available search results — such as LinkedIn pages — matching name and company. Each donated $3,200 in June.