Winnipeg MP Pat Martin is counting heavily on his friends in organized labour to help dig him out of a big financial hole after he settled a $5-million defamation suit last year filed by an Edmonton-based company.
The federal ethics commissioner's website says about two dozen organizations (mainly unions) and individuals have contributed $500 or more to a trust fund established to pay off Martin's legal debts. The website does not state how much each donor contributed.
Although union donations to federal political parties are prohibited, Martin has been scrupulous in ensuring the union gifts are legally on the up and up.
In an interview Tuesday, he said the fund's trustees sought the advice of the ethics commissioner, as well as that of Elections Canada and Revenue Canada, before establishing it.
Edmonton-based automated calls firm RackNine sued Martin for comments directed at the company during the robocalls controversy that erupted following the 2011 federal election. Martin later apologized, but his mea culpa did not stop the lawsuit.
Martin, 57, won't say how much he had to pay to end the lawsuit. A non-disclosure clause was part of the settlement.
But he said Tuesday the cost of servicing the debt alone is $2,700 a month.
"It's a massive amount of money. We've raised a massive amount of money to date and there's still a massive amount outstanding," the former journeyman carpenter and Manitoba Carpenters Union business manager said.
Unions and union leaders have not been the only contributors, Martin said. "There's been literally hundreds of personal donations."
University of Manitoba political scientist Royce Koop says while Martin appears to have covered himself from a legal standpoint, the optics are a different matter.
"I don't think it looks good," Koop said Tuesday, adding Martin must have been in "an extremely difficult situation."
The Winnipeg Centre MP borrowed money from the federal New Democratic Party to pay off RackNine and his legal debts. The trust fund is helping him repay the party.
"This is a guy who is very critical not only of any impropriety on the part of the government but any appearance of impropriety. So he knows that it doesn't look good to have unions giving him a gift," Koop said.
He said it will be up to Winnipeg Centre voters to judge Martin in the next election, which is slated for the fall of 2015. Martin, first elected in 1997, received 6,755 more votes than his nearest rival in 2011.
Several unions and union leaders listed as large donors on the ethics commissioner's website declined comment Tuesday.
Martin laughed off the notion he would be beholden to organized labour for their financial support. "That's an absurd notion to anybody that knows me... If anybody thinks that I could be any more friendly to unions because of a donation they don't know me very well," he said.
He said every donation received by the trust fund is scrutinized. He noted the ethics commissioner's office has directed he return more than $20,000 worth of donations so far. He would not say why the office felt some donations were inappropriate.
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