A political opponent of Mayor Kennedy Stewart is raising concerns about the role of major fundraisers for Stewart’s re-election campaign, including some of Vancouver’s most prominent real estate developers.
Kareem Allam, the campaign manager for mayoral candidate Ken Sim, says the mayor’s August calendar shows one-hour-long phone meetings scheduled with 15 of the 40 people whose names appear on a fundraising list that appears to be connected to Stewart’s campaign. Sim is running with three incumbent city councillors under the new party ABC Vancouver.
Allam says the mayor’s party, Forward Together Vancouver, needs to explain the purpose of those meetings and whether staff in the mayor’s office, some of whom are now working on Stewart’s campaign, were involved in setting them up.
“If the staff you go to for a meeting are the same people asking you for a donation, it starts to look like pay to play,” Allam said. “Pay to play” refers to the practice of people getting meetings or other access to politicians after they have donated money or helped fundraise for a campaign.
In a statement, Forward Together said all the meetings “were related exclusively to Mayor’s Office business and carried out in full compliance with the city’s code of conduct, The code of conduct prohibits the use of city resources and staff for election campaign activities “unless those resources are similarly available to all candidates and any associated fees have been paid for with election campaign funds.”
Asked what was discussed at the meetings, the party said: “The mayor frequently meets with representatives from non-profits, other governments and the private sector to discuss challenges and solutions for the issues facing the city like housing, mental health and addiction, and climate change.”
Stewart’s August calendar shows he had one-hour phone calls scheduled with condo marketer Bob Rennie; Jon Stovell, CEO of Reliance Properties Ltd.; Kerry Bonnis, owner of Bonnis Properties; lobbyist and former NDP MLA Moe Sihota; T. Pappajohn of Jameson Development Corp.; Arnold Silber of Value Property Group; Colin Bosa, the CEO of Bosa Properties Inc.; Duncan Wlodarczak, chief of staff for Onni Group of Companies; Raymond Louie, a former city councillor; Francesco Aquilini, managing director of the Aquilini Group; Ian Gillespie of Westbank Corp.; Dak Molnar, principal of the Molnar Group; and Leon Bogner, president of Bognar Development Group.
All of those names also appear on a list found last week on the sidewalk by Stanley Woodvine, a homeless man who lives in Vancouver’s Fairview neighborhood. woodvine posted a photo of the document on Twitter.
The spreadsheet appeared to show Forward Together expecting many of the city’s most well-known real estate developers, other businesspeople and former politicians to help raise a combined $783,500. The people named on the document were referred to as “captains.”
Acting as a fundraiser who encourages others to donate is allowed in BC Since 2017, unions and corporate donations have been banned and a cap has been set for individual donations. This year, the donation limit is $1,250.
Allam said he was concerned the names Neil, Mark and Alvin appear in the notes section of the list, along with the initials NM, with the note “NM to propose doubling goal on Sept. 12” alongside two of the potential donors on the list.
Stewart’s chief of staff is Neil Monckton. Forward Together’s executive director is Mark Hosak. Stewart’s communications director is Alvin Singh (Singh is running for council with Stewart’s party).
“The thing that bothered me the most about what we saw was the inference that Neil Monckton, the mayor’s chief of staff, was responsible for the followup on this,” said Allam, who previously ran Kevin Falcon’s campaign for leader of the BC Liberals.
The idea that the most senior advisor to the mayor, helping regulate the industry, is going out there and seeking donations from developers “is a thread that’s been missing from the story,” he said.
Forward Together has not denied the spreadsheet is theirs, but has refused to answer questions about the amounts listed on the document, Monckton’s role or their fundraising strategy. The party said it is actively fundraising and is following Elections BC rules. Its statement also called on ABC Vancouver councillors Rebecca Bligh, Sarah Kirby-Yung and Lisa Dominato to disclose their August calendars.
The sidewalk discovery sparked a conversation about the long-standing role of real estate developers in donating or raising money to fund political parties in a city with some of the most expensive real estate in the world. The fact that Woodvine has been homeless for the past 17 years added a layer of irony.
Stewart, a former NDP MP who has strong ties to left-wing political circles, has promised to strengthen renter protections while also committing to get 220,000 new homes built over the next 10 years.
His election in 2018 as an Independent marked the end of the 10-year reign of Vision Vancouver, a party that had also positioned itself as centre-left but had become known for attracting tens of thousands in donations from real estate developers at the same time home prices were soaring out of reach of many city dwellers. In 2018, the once-dominant party did not manage to win a single seat.
In 2018, Sim, then running with the centre-right Non-Partisan Association, lost to Stewart with the second-highest number of votes. Polls show he is again Stewart’s main competitor.
Allam said Sim’s party, ABC Vancouver, does accept donations from developers and other businesspeople and does approach potential donors to ask for contributions to fund lawn signs, advertising or campaign staff. But he said the party does not set fundraising targets for people.
Donation disclosures published by the parties show that ABC Vancouver had raised $538,016 by Aug. 30 with an average donation of $809. Forward Together had raised $236,542 by June 30, with an average donation of $706. Both parties have published lists that do not include donations under $100.
After publication of this story, Forward Together sent more information to The Tyee about their donations. The party has received a total of 1,112 individual contributions, with an average donation of $229. Both figures include donations under $100.
A $1,250 donation from Colin Bosa, CEO of Bosa Properties, and 12 other donations of $1,250 each from people with the same surname appear on ABC’s donation disclosure for a total of $16,500. Allam said the party had not approached the Bosa family seeking the donations. Bosa did not reply to an inquiry about whether the donations came from his family members.
Several developers whose names appeared on the list told the Globe and Mail they had been approached by the party to act as “captains” to raise money from family, friends and professional contacts, but had not agreed to act as fundraisers and did not know about the targeted amounts that appear on the list Woodvine found.
Stovell, the CEO of Reliance Properties Ltd., told the Globe and Mail that while he had been approached by Forward Together to help fundraise and had been put down to raise $12,500 — the amount that appears on the list Woodvine found — he had not agreed to do the fundraising.
“I have never committed to raise funds beyond my own personal donation to any party including Forward Together,” he told The Tyee, adding that he has donated to several parties for this election campaign to help support a healthy political system.
The Tyee reached out to all of the people who had meetings with the mayor and appear on the fundraising list, but only heard back from Sihota.
Former NDP MLA Sihota said he doesn’t remember whether he had a phone meeting with Stewart in August, but said his last conversation with Stewart “wasn’t anything memorable.”
“It was a fellow New Democrat offering strategic advice to a fellow New Democrat, wanting a fellow New Democrat to win,” Sihota said.
Francesco Aquilini’s name appeared on a Forward Together fundraising emails in April, and he and eight other people with the Aquilini surname have donated $1,250 each to Forward Together’s campaign. Aquilini is the owner of the Vancouver Canucks and the managing director of the Aquilini Group, which is involved in property development, farming, a private jet business and investments in renewable energy. His fundraising goal is the highest on the spreadsheet, set at $110,000.
The April fundraising appeal from Aquilini’s email address invited recipients to attend a lunch with the mayor. Tickets ranged from $600 to $1,250 — but those who paid the maximum amount got access to a pre-lunch reception and entry to other Forward Together events.
Aquilini did not reply to questions from The Tyee about his fundraising activities for Forward Together and whether the donations made by people with the Aquilini surname were related to him.
Duff Conacher, the co-founder of Democracy Watch, said BC’s political donation cap is too high and it’s still possible for wealthy people and their family members or other connections to effectively donate tens of thousands of dollars to the party of their choice, or to be known to the party as the person who made other donations happen.
Conacher said the donation limit should be closer to what ordinary people can spend, such as Quebec’s $100 limit.
There’s also a risk that people who are known as valuable fundraisers for a political party will have an outsized influence with politicians once they’re elected.
“The party knows who these valuable people are,” Conacher said.