A political financing trail that includes marshmallows and drink holders has put the minister responsible for Manitoba Public Insurance on the wrong side of electoral laws — and deepened the controversy surrounding the Tories and the insurance industry.
Crown Services Minister Colleen Mayer broke an election financing law by accepting about $850 worth of items and employee time from Manitoba insurance brokers during a golf tournament fundraiser last year.
Elections commissioner Bill Bowles summarized his investigation in a report distributed to political parties and insurance brokers this week, prompting the NDP to call Wednesday for Mayer's resignation.
The government's relationship with the insurance industry and private brokers is "an ethical blind spot," said NDP Fort Garry candidate Mark Wasyliw.
"The public trust has been broken here. The law has been broken here. This is why people are cynical about politicians," he said.
"We're calling today for Premier (Brian) Pallister to immediately commit publicly that he will no longer interfere with the negotiations between (MPI) and the brokers in Manitoba."
The report follows news of the government’s involvement in highly contentious negotiations between the public auto insurer and brokers on such issues as commission rates and involvement in future online sales.
Documents previously presented by the NDP show the Pallister government pressured MPI last fall to extend what the Crown corporation felt was a rich contract for private insurance brokers by two years.
In October 2018, NDP MLA Andrew Swan contacted the elections commissioner, raising red flags about corporate sponsorship at Mayer's Classic Golf Tournament, an annual fundraiser for her St. Vital constituency association.
Swan pointed to photos and social media posts from the Insurance Brokers Association of Manitoba (IBAM) describing its involvement as a hole sponsor at the event.
Since 2003, it has been illegal in Manitoba for unions or corporate entities to donate to political parties.
Bowles found Mayer's constituency association, IBAM and Brio Insurance had breached the Election Financing Act, though he believed the mistakes were likely accidental.
"Although I have found that these contributions were made in contravention of the act, I have concluded that it would not be in the public interest to commence a prosecution. In my view, the breaches of the act were unintentional," the commissioner wrote.
"Moreover, both IBAM and Brio Insurance, as well as their representatives, were assisted by the constituency association with respect to their contributions. Unfortunately for them, any guidance they received from the constituency association was inadequate to ensure compliance with the act, specifically as it related to non-monetary donations."
Bowles recommended the constituency association pay back the value of the brokers' donations and time spent at the tournament. IBAM and Brio sent on-the-clock employees to volunteer at the event, costing each group $133.80.
IBAM also spent $546.96 on hot chocolate, mugs, golf tees and other items for golfers at its sponsored hole, which Bowles described as a "marshmallow-chipping contest" for participants. (A spokesperson for IBAM couldn't clarify Wednesday what the contest entailed.)
Brio donated drink koozies, costing around $36.50.
Grant Wainikka, chief executive officer of IBAM, was unavailable for comment Wednesday.
A spokesperson sent a statement on the association's behalf, noting IBAM participated in the golf tournament in good faith and any breaches of the Election Financing Act were unintentional. IBAM has also "proactively implemented sponsorship guidelines" since the golf tournament last year, they said.
Meanwhile, the St. Vital constituency association has already paid back the in-kind donations to brokers, according to Keith Stewart, CEO of the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba.
He fielded questions about the commissioner's report that were directed at Mayer, noting the minister was unavailable for comment. A provincial spokesperson told the Free Press she was out of province.
"We agree with the commissioner’s ruling that these were 'unintentional' breaches by constituency volunteers. We acted immediately upon his report being issued, and the contributions in question have been returned. The commissioner stated that he considers this matter closed," Stewart said by email.
Stewart shot back with a reminder of an election financing breach from 20 years ago. In 1999, union employees working for NDP campaigns were wrongly counted as campaign expenses, giving the party subsidies that cost taxpayers $76,000.
Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.