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Volpe gives back kids' campaign donations

[PoliticsWatch posted 5:25 p.m. June 1, 2006]

OTTAWA  — Facing a political firestorm that was creating bad publicity for the Liberal party leadership race, Liberal MP Joe Volpe's campaign announced Thursday it was giving back $27,000 in campaign contributions to five donors who are under the age of 18. 
Among those donors were the 11-year-old twin children of a former executive of the generic drug firm Apotex, the Globe and Mail reported Thursday.  

Volpe had been under fire from MPs from all parties, including Liberals, for receiving $108,000 in donations from 20 individuals who were either executives or former executives of  Apotex or were members of their immediate family. 

Critics said accepting donations from family members of corporate executives was a way to get around a ban on corporate donations. Individuals are allowed to give a maximum of $5,400 to a candidate, which is the amount of each of the five donations Volpe's campaign returned on Thursday. 

Volpe's decision to hand the money back came less than 24 hours after he gave a lengthy interview to CPAC defending the donations.  

But before the interview went to air, Volpe's campaign had already issued a press release stating that it would take another look at the donations and return any if they were deemed not incompliance with election laws or the spirit of election laws. 

The Globe and Mail reported that Volpe's campaign issued the press release shortly after the Globe called to get reaction about the two 11-year-old's maximum donations. 

Jim Karygiannis, a veteran Liberal MP and Volpe's campaign manager, told the Globe on Wednesday that there was nothing wrong with children of any age making political donations. 

But by Thursday morning Volpe's campaign said it had changed its mind and would return five donations because although they were in compliance with election laws "the perception was not good."

Volpe told CBC News late Thursday that despite what his campaign manager told the Globe, "Until yesterday, we did not know ... or at least i did not know that there was this issue of underage minors who made donations."

The Volpe controversy has brought the wrong kind of attention to the Liberal leadership race. 

The Liberals were turfed out of government in January a few months after a judicial inquiry found the party had benefited from an "elaborate kickback scheme" that funneled money from a government publicity campaign in Quebec to ad firms who in turn gave money to party organizers in Quebec. 

The other political parties had a field day with the issue on Thursday.

"How it was defended yesterday as perfectly legal and perfectly honourable and today it's so terrible, it just shows you that the Liberal party has not change its spots," said Treasury Board President John Baird.

"You would think after the biggest corruption scandal in Canadian history they would want to be setting a new tone and a new direction. The bottom line is they are not."

Liberal MP John McCallum said he did not think Volpe's accepting the donations was "a positive for the party."

"But I think it's being rectified by his returning the money," said McCallum. 

Steven MacKinnon, the national director of the Liberal party, commended Volpe's decision to return the money, but maintained his campaign did nothing illegal.

"Mr. Volpe's going above and beyond the law and I think that's commendable on his part," he said. 

"I think that Mr. Volpe took the measure of people's reaction to this story and decided he was going to give an appropriate response. It's not for me to judge that response."
NDP MP Pat Martin said Thursday he wants to amend the federal accountability act currently before Parliament to make it harder for children to make big donations. Baird said the government was open to examining the proposal.

Martin is proposing amending the law to have the children's donation deducted from the maximum amount their parents can donate. 

He has also asked the Elections Commissioner to investigate whether  campaign financing rules were circumvented by Volpe's campaign. 

"It's almost as if there was some collective unconscious here that all the Apotex executives woke up one morning and all decided to give the maximum amount of money to one leadership candidate. We want that investigated."

Volpe is a veteran Liberal MP who was first elected to the House of Commons in 1988. 

He was never in cabinet during the Chretien years, but held the human resources and later immigration portfolios when Paul Martin became prime minister. 

In cabinet, Volpe was involved in controversy on a couple of occasions. 

Last year, the Tories went after Volpe in question period because his public disclosure of expenditures showed he spent $138 on a pizza for two. 

He also had to apologize last spring after describing two Conservative MPs as members of the "Conservative Clan" when they appeared in a newspaper photo holding a poster lampooning the Liberals as a crime family. 

While most parties have controversies involving fundraising and party memberships, the Liberals have recently been involved in some of the most amusing ones. 

In 2002, a Victoria, B.C. man started receiving invitations to Liberal party functions and nomination meetings addressed to Gregg Buchanan. The only Gregg to live at his house was his golden retriever who died five years earlier. 

Included in the dead dog's mail was a Christmas card from then finance minister Paul Martin. 

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