As is the case in other jurisdictions, British Columbia's public sector uses the Big Four international accounting firms to provide auditing and advisory services. But, according to a review of Election British Columbia filings, those same firms donated $136,199 to the governing Liberals between 2005 and 2008 - with $96,794 being contributed by KPMG LLP. So couldn't those donations put those firms in a perceived conflict?
"We don't believe so," said KPMG national communications director Gordon Braun-Woodbury, whose company has made donations as part of its ongoing sponsorship of the Liberals' resource dinner, the premier's dinner and the leader's open golf tournament.
In fact, according to Mr. Braun-Woodbury, KPMG doesn't "look at those (contributions) as political contributions." Instead, "our sponsorship of these events are related to the opportunities they allow us to build business relationships with our clients in both the public and private sectors. So the government holds these events, our clients go and we have a presence there as well. And it's valuable as a business opportunity to us."
That being said, he stressed KPMG is "very, very committed to transparency in all our dealings with government. And that is the reason those amounts are on public record with Elections BC. So we are completely transparent."
KPMG isn't the only accounting firm that's made substantive political contributions to the Liberals - which, by law, are disclosed by the party to Elections British Columbia. Ernst & Young LLP also donated $23,405.00 to the Liberals during that same period.
But the company's Western Canada managing partner Fred Withers said Ernst & Young LLP "would typically - in fact probably not ever - write a direct donation or cheque to a party, whether it's federal or provincial. So it wouldn't be an Ernst & Young donation. What we have done is we have attended the leadership dinners" hosted by the Liberals, such as last week's Dinner Under The Sails.
"And that would have entailed writing a cheque for $3,500 - which is treated as a donation," he explaining, describing the dinner as a "business network opportunity" that provides the company with a chance to engage "in a dialogue in the community" and "support the political process."
"It certainly wouldn't be our objective in making a donation having an expectation that there's (public sector) work associated with that. And I could see somebody questioning whether that creates independence or not. To our knowledge, the government doesn't award work based on the quantum of contributions it receives."
Nevertheless, Ernst & Young does attempt to identify and assess threats to its independence, Withers continued. And if the company determines that threat doesn't "impair our independence and can be appropriately mitigated by others factors then we would be able to conclude that we are independent in that circumstance and move forward."
Asked whether Ernst & Young had conducted a threat assessment of its political donations to the Liberals, Mr. Withers said the company's Canadian chief executive must approve any contributions it makes. "So the cheque and balance in all of this is that this is a responsibility of the chief executive officer to satisfy himself that we're not putting ourselves in a position - either in fact or by perception - where somebody might view this (donation) as being made with the expectation of having something come back in return for it."
Mr. Withers also said Ernst & Young manages the threat political donations might pose to its independence by not contributing too much money.
None of the Big Four donated any money to the New Democrats between 2005 and 2008.
"I'm not aware of whether the other parties do the type of events that would lead us to purchase a table," Mr. Withers explained. "If they were, I'm sure we would be asked to take a look at it just because some of our partners" - who are encouraged to support the political process by making donations to the party of their choice - "and staff probably have strong affiliation with the NDP."
The other two Big Four accounting firms - Deloitte & Touche LLP and PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP - donated $8,000 apiece to the Liberals.