Elections BC investigating whether environmental group improperly aided BC NDP leadership candidate

Elections BC investigating whether environmental group improperly aided BC NDP leadership candidate
Anjali Appadurai (left) is running for the leadership of the BC NDP.

Elections BC is investigating whether a major environmental organization broke the province’s election laws to help sign up supporters for BC NDP leadership candidate Anjali Appadurai.

Dogwood BC spent the past month sending emails and texts to its membership list encouraging people to become BC NDP members to support Appadurai’s campaign, fundraising money to create a phone bank that signs up new members for Appadurai, organizing volunteers into call centre shifts, training people to make calls using Dogwood’s own outreach software, running online ads, and appearing to have paid staff collaborating with Appadurai’s campaign — all of which could violate both BC’s Election Act and the party’s leadership race rules.

“We are aware of this situation and are reviewing it to ensure political contribution rules are being followed,” said Elections BC spokesperson Andrew Watson.

“It remains to be seen if any specific activities being conducted by the Dogwood Initiative constitute a direct or in-kind contribution under the Election Act to leadership contestant Anjali Appadurai.”

Appadurai is challenging former attorney general David Eby in the party leadership race, set for Dec. 3. The winner will become the 37th premier of BC.

The BC NDP has also launched its own probe into the matter.

“The BC NDP’s Election CEO is currently investigating the link between a third-party campaign and a declared candidate in our leadership race,” said Heather Stoutenburg, BC NDP Provincial Director.

“Any campaign, candidate or individual who is found to have violated our leadership election rules may be subject to sanctions. Any violations of the Election Act by third-parties or campaigns will be duly reported to Elections BC. The BC NDP is committed to a free and fair leadership election.”

It’s the latest controversy facing the Appadurai campaign, which last week was revealed to be under BC NDP investigation over a video Appadurai appeared in with a supporter who offered to pay the $10 NDP membership fee for anyone who couldn’t afford it. Doing so is also illegal, but the Appadurai campaign denies anyone actually followed through with the offer.

Dogwood denied breaking any rules. It appears, instead, to be operating in a grey area of the law.

“Before the NDP leadership race got underway, we talked to Elections BC about the rules around third parties and what we discovered is as long as we are communicating to our supporters, via our media list and channels, the Election Act is silent on what speech we may engage in,” said Kai Nagata, Dogwood’s communications and campaigns director.

“There are very few restrictions.”

Elections BC said that while the law doesn’t specifically regulate third-party advertising during party leadership candidates, any expenses made on behalf of a leadership candidate to promote their bid are still political contributions and can only be made by “eligible individuals” up to $1,390.09.

Whether Dogwood is an “eligible individual,” whether it is conducting work that amounts to a contribution to Appadurai’s campaign and whether it is coordinating with her campaign in a way that would violate the law are all issues being investigated by Elections BC.

BC’s NDP government changed the election law in 2018 to ban unions and corporations (including non-profit environmental groups) from making donations, including using their staff and resources behind-the-scenes to run significant portions of a candidate’s campaign.

Nagata said that’s not happening because Dogwood isn’t actually endorsing Appadurai. Instead, he argued, the environmental organization is simply encouraging its members to sign up for the BC NDP leadership race. Whatever they do after that, he said, is up to them.

But a review of the numerous emails Dogwood has sent out to members show they are clearly supporting Appadurai.

For example, an Aug. 17 email to supporters from Dogwood’s campaign manager Alexandra Woodsworth is focused entirely on praising Appadurai’s “vision for transformative change on issues like the climate emergency” and calling Eby the “status quo” candidate.

“This is a genuine opportunity to put a climate champion directly into the premier’s office,” reads the email, which contains a link to a blog post on Dogwood’s website written by Woodsworth that contains a large photo of Appadurai and a subheading that reads: “Climate justice advocate Anjali Appadurai could be the boldest premier in generations.”

Numerous other emails and text contain similar messages.

“We haven’t endorsed Ms. Appadurai, I just want to make that clear,” said Nagata.

“We don’t presume to tell people how to vote.”

But Nagata himself has authored a blog post on Dogwood’s website that is highly supportive of Appadurai.

The deadline to sign up new members in the BC NDP leadership race was Sept. 3.

Prior to that, Dogwood was soliciting volunteers to join its phone bank system and work in shifts to get people to join the BC NDP, as part of emails that were also high in praise for Appadurai and dismissive of Eby. The organization called it a “base camp” operation.

“All month long, we’re calling Dogwood supporters and sharing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put a climate champion in the Premier’s office!” read a Facebook post, which offered training on how to use Dogwood’s internal CallHub software.

Dogwood was also fundraising $3,500 boost the capacity of the call centre, and it’s unclear if the money raised is an indirect contribution to Appadurai’s campaign.

“That money will go directly to reaching 10,000 Dogwood supporters asking them to vote in the race to choosing the person who will lead B.C. for the next two years,” wrote Adam Bailey, Dogwood’s head of revenue, in emails to supporters Aug. 25 and 30.

“With your support, we could call 10,000 people next week! An influx of thousands of new voters could actually change the outcome of this race.”

There also appear to be more direct connections between Dogwood and Appadurai. George Radner, Appadurai’s assistant campaign manager, stated on his Twitter bio that he also sat on Dogwood’s board of directors (the reference has since been removed).

BC’s Election Act stipulates a third party must be “independent” of a candidate, and they can’t be coordinating together.

Appadurai’s campaign insists that is the case.

“Our campaign is not working with third parties in any way so I would suggest that if you have any questions about the Dogwood Initiative that you please contact them directly because we do not have any knowledge on what they’re doing,” wrote Erik Olesen, a spokesperson for the Appadurai campaign.

“While we appreciate their support for Anjali, we are not in communication with them.”

Nagata said it would be improper to be strategizing with Appadurai. “That would not be in keeping with the letter or the spirit of the law,” he said.

However, a video obtained by CHEK News of an Aug. 6 online Zoom meeting shows Nagata meeting virtually with Appadurai, along with other prominent environmentalists like Avi Lewis, in what appears to be a strategy session in support of her campaign.

In the video, Nagata identifies himself by name as Dogwood’s campaigns and communications director.

“I can say that we are prepared to hammer our entire B.C. list over the next three weeks, because we did a survey and found four out of five of our supporters in BC are open to joining the BC NDP in order to vote for a climate (champion) and that’s before Anjali’s name came up, and I think with somebody of Anjali’s calibre on the campaign trail that pitch is going to become even more convincing,” he said on the video, taken just four days before Appadurai publicly launched her campaign.

“We are prepared to not only email but phone, text our supporters in BC, climate members who’ve been through a lot of frustration over the last few years and who are ready for bold leadership.”

When asked if the video showed coordination between Dogwood and Appadurai’s campaign, Nagata repeated that Dogwood is simply communicating to its members, not supporting Appadurai directly and that the matter should be discussed with Elections BC.

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Rob ShawRob Shaw

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