Questions linger as ban on gifts raised in Samra fundraiser trip

Council mum on questionable gift of ticket to minister’s fundraiser as more questions raised about purpose of city manager’s trip
Nanaimo’s city manager may have broken rules against staff accepting gifts when she accepted a ticket paid for by a Vancouver law firm to attend a BC Liberal Party fundraiser.

Tracy Samra, the city’s chief administrative officer (CAO), has admitted she went to community, sport and cultural development Minister Peter Fassbender’s annual campaign fundraiser during a trip that she charged to the city’s taxpayers.

She accepted a ticket to the fundraiser from Boughton Law and attended the Feb. 4 evening event with her city paid lawyer George Cadman, QC. Individual tickets to the event cost a minimum of $250 up to a high of $625.

At the time of the event, the minister had received a complaint from Mayor Bill McKay about the unusual hiring last November of Ms. Samra as Nanaimo’s interim CAO.

Ms. Samra’s presence at the fundraiser with Mr. Cadman, a prominent figure in Vancouver Liberal Party circles, put the minister in a potential conflict that could have compromised his ability to adjudicate the dispute.

Both Mr. Fassbender and Ms. Samra have stressed that they did not discuss the mayor’s complaint when they met briefly that night at the event — for two to three minutes, according to the city manager.

CAO Tracy Samra at this week’s council meeting.

Political fundraiser ticket not “normal exchange of hospitality,” experts

George Cadman, QC
George Cadman, QC photo: Boughton Law

Under Nanaimo’s code of conduct for all employees, staff are prohibited from accepting gifts from sources related to their work. Mr. Cadman is his firm’s “key contact” for government and administrative law.

In an email to News Nanaimo this week, Ms. Samra seemed to downplay her use of the fundraiser ticket by presenting it as routine.

“I understand from Mr. Cadman that it is the standard practice for his firm to provide these opportunities to civic officials that they do work and/or consult with. City regularly receives invites from former and current firms,” she said.

However, the city’s employee code of conduct prohibits staff from accepting gifts from “any individual, corporation or organization in the course of their employment duties other than the normal exchange of hospitality between persons doing business together.”

Nanaimo's code of conduct for employees
Nanaimo’s code of conduct for employees includes a ban on staff accepting gifts connected to their jobs.

Legal experts told News Nanaimo that a ticket to an evening political party fundraiser is not “the normal exchange of hospitality” for city staff. However, they said the donor must have an existing or potential business connection with the staff member who accepts the gift.

In this case, Ms. Samra has said she went to Vancouver on city business. That “city business” was to see Mr. Cadman, her personal lawyer, whose fees were approved by council.

In-camera meeting minutes show that council members approved up to $5,000 each for themselves and Ms. Samra to obtain personal legal advice related to legal challenges and complaints about her unusual appointment as interim CAO.

Five councillors who voted for Ms. Samra’s appointment as interim CAO — Bill Bestwick, Jim Kipp, Gord Fuller, Bill Yoachim and Jerry Hong — have disclosed that they spent more than $14,500 on legal fees related to the matter. However, the city has not disclosed Ms. Samra’s legal expenses.

The fundraiser was held at the Aria Banquet Hall and Convention Centre
The fundraiser was held at the Aria Banquet Hall and Convention Centre.

“A slippery slope”

Municipalities typically adopt bans on gifts to avoid conflicts between employees’ duty to taxpayers and any real or perceived obligations to the donor.

Integrity BC executive director Dermod Travis said accepting gifts was a slippery slope for public sector employees and they should never do it.

“The biggest problem with staff accepting gifts is the lines blur. It starts out innocently enough, maybe a bottle of wine, then a lunch, a dinner, hockey tickets. Very quickly the line can be crossed, though, and no longer are suppliers viewed dispassionately – as they should be – but as friends. You can quickly forget who you’re working for,” said Mr. Travis.

To illustrate his point, Mr. Travis pointed to evidence presented to the Charbonneau Commission in Quebec. It showed those gifts can end up as holidays, cash and home renovations.

“It’s a slippery slope and one that should never be embarked on,” he said.

Nanaimo council critic Don Bonner, who also manages the A Better Nanaimo group on Facebook, told News Nanaimo the city’s code of conduct should be respected.

“For our CAO to be receiving the gift of an expensive dinner at a political fundraiser is beyond the pale.  The city needs to immediately repay the fee for the fundraiser and then council needs to have a long hard talk with the CAO and reaffirm their expectations,” said Mr. Bonner.

Nanaimo’s city manager isn’t the first public official to be snared by accepting tickets to political fundraisers.

In June, City of Dawson Creek council voted to reimburse oil and gas giant Encana Corp. after the city’s mayor attended a BC Liberal Party dinner with Premier Christy Clark as the company’s guest.

Under that city’s code of conduct, officials are barred from accepting gifts that “would, or might appear to, improperly influence the employee in the performance of duties.” Encana was before Dawson Creek council to ask for water access for hydraulic fracking shortly after the gift.

“Shows initiative to me”

However, despite the apparent breach of the city’s code of conduct, it seemed likely yesterday that council, controlled by the majority of five that first appointed Ms. Samra without so much as an interview, will continue to turn a blind eye to her missteps.

This was made clear in comments by council majority member Gord Fuller on Facebook yesterday morning when he said: “I am glad she chose to do so (accept the fundraiser ticket), as are others on council. Shows initiative to me.”

News Nanaimo asked council members via email yesterday what message they were sending to staff by failing to address an apparent breach of the city’s code of conduct. There was no response.

Official silence from council

Since news of Ms. Samra’s taxpayer-funded trip first broke on Tuesday, council has made no official comment on the matter, leaving supporters and detractors alike frustrated as they’ve scrambled for answers.

While he has refused to answer questions from News Nanaimo, Mr. Fuller has been active all week on Facebook deflecting questions and giving vague, and at times contradictory, explanations that have done little to clear the air.

And when Nanaimo NDP MLA Leonard Krog called on council to deal with the questions transparently, Mr. Fuller posted a condescending email he said Ms. Samra had sent to Mr. Krog.

After first saying she “would be delighted” to meet with the MLA she added: “In fact, why don’t you join us at the next open council as a delegation and ask your questions to the public. We can certainly make room for you on the agenda. Please let me know when you are available. Thanks.”

Tracy Samra's email to MLA Leonard Krog
Text of Ms. Samra’s email to MLA Leonard Krog after he called on council to deal transparently with the matter. It was published by Mr. Fuller on Facebook.

Many unanswered questions

By week’s end many questions remained unanswered. They include:

Why did Ms. Samra and her lawyer think it a good idea to go to the minister’s fundraiser?

Ms. Samra is a trained lawyer who should know all about conflict and bias. Before she attended Mr. Fassbender’s fundraiser, Ms. Samra was aware of the mayor’s complaint to the minister about her unusual hiring. She was also consulting Mr. Cadman about the issue at taxpayer’s expense.

By attending the fundraiser with Mr. Cadman, Ms. Samra put the minister in a conflicted position. Mr. Fassbender said Mr. Cadman was a long-time contributor to his political campaigns. Mr. Cadman is also a heavyweight in Vancouver political circles, provides “government relations” services to clients, and is a director with the Vancouver Airport Authority and the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade.

Both Mr. Fassbender and Ms. Samra have stressed that they did not discuss the mayor’s complaints at his fundraiser. However, that might be irrelevant. Being introduced to the minister by someone as well-regarded and supportive of him as Mr. Cadman could conceivably have biased the minister to Ms. Samra.

A lawyer with extensive municipal experience said: “The minister seems to fully understand the problem. He will now have to step aside due to charges of bias and/or undue influence if an adjudicative process comes his way at some point.”

If attending the fundraiser wasn’t city business, why did council approve taxpayers paying for Ms. Samra’s hotel for the night?

Ms. Samra has said she went to Vancouver for city business so her travel expenses are legitimate. That “city business” was to see Mr. Cadman prior to going with him to the minister’s fundraiser.

Even though Mr. Cadman was her personal lawyer, she is calling it “city business” because Mr. Cadman was advising her on the council dispute over her hiring, and the city was paying his bill.

But it’s unclear that taxpayers should have been paying Mr. Cadman’s bill in the first place if he was her personal lawyer. And even if it was a legitimate expense, why couldn’t the two have talked on the phone? Why meet in Vancouver and then go together to the fundraiser in Surrey?

Both Minister Fassbender and Ms. Samra have wanted to make it clear that there was no business discussed when they met at his fundraiser.

If no business was discussed and the fundraiser was just fun, why should taxpayers be footing Ms. Samra’s hotel bill? If she hadn’t gone to the fundraiser, could she have returned to Nanaimo the same day and not incurred the hotel expense?

Did Mr. Cadman charge the city for the cost of Ms. Samra’s fundraiser ticket and his time at the event?

This question was put to Ms. Samra but she chose not to answer.

If the city paid Mr. Cadman for Ms. Samra’s ticket, it’s the same as paying public money to the BC Liberal Party. If paid directly by a municipality, the ticket cost would be deemed a “prohibited contribution” under Elections BC rules. Even if Mr. Cadman’s law firm didn’t list the ticket in its bill to the city, how did his firm expect to recover the ticket’s cost?

If the city did pay for Mr. Cadman’s costs that night, then he must have been there on business for the city, and what business was that?

Of course, if the city paid Mr. Cadman’s firm for Ms. Samra’s ticket then it wasn’t a gift. Is that why council isn’t willing to act on the code of conduct with her?

Why didn’t Ms. Samra simply explain the purpose of the trip in her expense disclosure?
News Nanaimo began asking questions about Ms. Samra’s Vancouver trip when we noticed that the purpose of the trip wasn’t explained in her expense report. Most other expenses were explained or were self-explanatory.

However, our attempts to gain access to the receipts for the trip via a freedom of information request were blocked with no reasons given. The city even made an usual application to the province to strip News Nanaimo of access rights.

When we made it clear that we had information about her attending the Minister’s fundraiser, Ms. Samra claimed there was no truth to any of it and threatened to sue. It wasn’t until several hours after Mr. Fassbender gave his account that Ms. Samra admitted attending the fundraiser.

What was the big deal about the purpose of the trip that it wasn’t explained in the first place?

Did any councillors have prior knowledge that Ms. Samra was going to the minister’s fundraiser?

Why Ms. Samra chose to attend the fundraiser and who on council knew or approved of it has become the focus of questions since the news broke on Tuesday.

Seven of the nine council members have declined to answer emailed questions to them about the issue, including whether they had prior knowledge that Ms. Samra planned to attend the fundraiser.

Only Mayor McKay and Councillor Diane Brennan said they had no prior knowledge.

Councillors Bestwick, Kipp, Fuller, Yoachim, Hong, Thorpe and Pratt failed to respond to emailed questions on the issue.

If some councillors did know, what did they think Ms. Samra’s purpose was in going to the fundraiser? Did they instruct or approve her going and is that why they approved her trip expenses?

And if they did approve of the trip to attend the fundraiser, how could they do so without all council members knowing?

What questions do you still have? Post them in the comments below and News Nanaimo will try to get the answers.