Developer super donors contributed more than $1M to GTA council candidates
Sept. 13, 2023
It takes money to run a campaign for city council: there are all of those lawn signs and door hangers, and volunteers shouldn’t have to caffeinate themselves.
And it’s no secret that property developers have long been generous donors to municipal campaigns. After all, city councillors have huge sway over developers’ property and profits through the land-use planning process.
But the extent of that spending has rarely been examined. While campaign contributions over $100 are publicly disclosed in Ontario, those records are held by each municipality, in pages -- some handwritten and photocopied -- on municipal websites.
The Trillium used Google Pinpoint, an AI-based research tool, to read and sort through the 2022 campaign finance returns for every municipality in the Greater Toronto Area to find donors who’d contributed to multiple campaigns across multiple municipalities. We then made a database of contributions from the province’s most generous donors.
Each of these “super donors” appears to work at a property development firm. In nearly all cases, there are more donors who either reported the same address as them or appear to work at the same development company as them who donated to many of the same candidates they supported, often in the same amounts, at the same time. They too were added to our database.
We validated and graphed the results. All told, these donations totalled over $1 million across the GTA.
This list is not an exhaustive catalogue of developer donations, however. It only captures the prolific donors who contributed to 10 or more candidates in the 2022 municipal elections and those clearly associated with them.
Many of these individuals’ donations total over $10,000. One, Mitchell Goldhar of SmartCentres, donated to $39,343 to 65 candidates.
Fieldgate’s Jack and Aviva Eisenberger, along with four others who share their last name and address, donated just over $96,000. Donations associated with their development firm as a whole totalled more than $160,000, split between 65 candidates. Several candidates received five individual $1,000 donations from people associated with the company.
These donations tended to come in groups: while most candidates got none of this money, others got nearly all of their funding from people associated with these generous donors and their property development companies.
On the whole, the candidates who received this money were far more likely to be successful than the many who didn’t, and more likely to be incumbents. There are still many examples of successful long-term politicians who did not receive any money from these donors.
Vaughan Councillor Marilyn Iafrate, who has refused developer donations since she first ran in 2006, put it this way: “There was no way I was going to be beholden to any developer.”
She’d worked as an executive assistant before throwing her own hat in the ring because she didn’t like what she saw at City Hall.
“I've seen how they can no longer distinguish what is right for the community versus what it's beneficial to the developer,” Iafrate said.
By our calculations, 41 candidates received more than $10,000 from this group of super donors and their associates. A Peel Region councillor -- Michael Palleschi -- received the most, nearly $40,000.
Most of the GTA’s mayors also received these developer-linked donations: Mississauga’s Bonnie Crombie ($37,200), Brampton’s Patrick Brown ($36,000), Markham’s Frank Scarpitti ($30,700), former Toronto mayor John Tory ($28,000), Pickering’s Kevin Ashe ($22,600), Whitby’s Elizabeth Roy ($20,200) and Clarington’s Adrian Foster ($10,300).
The runner-up for Vaughan’s mayor’s chair, Sandra Yeung Racco ($25,450) received more of these donations than the winner, Steven Del Duca, who is lower on the list at ($10,950).
Notably, the mayors of Caledon, Newmarket, Burlington and Oakville had little-to-no donations from this group, and neither did the elected Halton regional chair.
Durham Regional Chair John Henry, who accepted $21,700 in donations from this list and returned others after reaching his spending limit, told The Trillium it takes significant funds to run a campaign -- particularly in his case, where residents of the large region elect the chair directly.
It costs $50,000 to $60,000 just to send mailers to residents and while he “walked off 30 pounds” during the campaign, he said, it’s just not possible to reach every door.
“One of the greatest gifts you can get in our form of democracy is when you knock on someone's door and, after a minute conversation, they trust you with their vote,” Henry said. “That's a really big thing. And it's important to remember that it's not just every four years, it's every day.”
Roy, the mayor of Whitby, also stressed how expensive it is to campaign. Her core campaign cost over $80,000 and she spent another $9,000 on parties, election night and thank-you advertising.
Local council candidates will only spend around $20,000 on a campaign, but many first-timers will have to open a line of credit to afford it because they’re not getting money elsewhere, she said.
Iafrate, the Vaughan councillor who eschews developers’ donations, recalls a call she got from a developer in 2010 right after she was elected for the first time, very insistently offering to help her pay down her campaign bills.
“I remember like it was yesterday,” she said. “My answer to him was, ‘You know what? I was born poor, I will die poor. I don't want your money.”
Municipal candidates in Ontario can self-finance their campaign to a limit that’s based on a formula that takes into account the office they’re seeking and its number of electors, with an overall cap of $25,000. Donations from the public, including developers, can lessen the personal financial burden on candidates.
Henry, the Durham regional chair, said that because he’s the largest donor to his campaign, it’s loyalty to his “face in the mirror” that determines his support on the issues, he said.
“All councillors, when they do receive financial donations, I hope that they stay true to their word and act in the best interest of their oath,” he said. “It is important that the process exists, but processes that don't work are still wrong.”
For her part, Roy said she gets questions about accepting developer donations.
“And the answer is yes. Does it impact decision-making and all that? No, it doesn't.”
That sentiment was echoed by the CFO of Tribute Communities, Gus Stavropoulos.
“There's no correlation between the donations we're writing and a specific ask,” said Gus Stavropoulos said.
Steven and Al Libfeld, Tribute Communities’ chief executive officer and president, donated $39,000 to GTA candidates in the 2022 elections, one of the smaller totals included in this project.
Stavropoulos described the donations as normal -- the way things have been done for the two decades he’s been in the business -- and part of the same kind of community engagement as sponsoring charity golf tournaments and contributing to hospital foundations.
When there’s a successful candidate in the community who reaches out for support, they’re happy to help, no matter what political stripe the candidate is affiliated with, Stavropoulos said.
“We work together with these people -- for sure there’s a relationship,” he said. “We have to work with them in order to achieve what we're trying to do. We can't do it alone, and they can't do it alone. They want to see a vibrant community built the right way, and we want to do the same.”
It’s also legal, Stavropoulos said. “That's why they're all in Steven and Al Libfeld’s names, personally, because we stay within the limits that we're allowed to donate.”
Zack Taylor, an associate professor at Western University who studies cities and campaign finance, looked at The Trillium’s findings and said they show how some developers have found ways to maximize their impact while respecting Ontario’s laws limiting contributions to $1,200 (and $2,500 to Toronto mayoral candidates) and to $5,000 per council.
With no provincewide limit on municipal donations, some donors with interests in many municipalities spread their donations far and wide.
“Generally it's been found that if money wants to find a way, it finds a way, this is called the hydraulic theory -- like water dripping through your roof into your kitchen,” Taylor said.
That’s why there could be good reason not to tighten limits on donations any further. “The more you restrict it, the more you drive money underground in ways that you can't regulate and you can no longer track,” he said.
Instead, Taylor said the province should provide more transparency around municipal donations, including centralizing all of the information about them into a single searchable registry, as in British Columbia, so journalists and citizens can scrutinize them.
It’s trickier to know if there’s a quid pro quo and if the donations buy any influence for the developers who make them, Taylor said.
“Certainly, there's the implication that this is possible and that's what people are worried about when they worry about campaign finance.”
Iafrate has no doubt about that. She recalled getting a phone call from a developer who’d mistakenly believed he’d contributed to her: “He said, ‘Hey, you know what? I helped you. And now you help me.”
But more often, she said, it’s not that a $1,200 donation alone buys influence, but that it opens the door to developers cultivating relationships with councillors and city staff.
Iafrate and Taylor both said one measure to lessen the influence developers’ donations have is to make it easier for politicians to raise money from regular people. One way of doing that is to offer rebates, as some municipalities do, for some portion of personal donations for residents of the city or the province, with a limit of $1,000 or less.
That view was shared by Robert MacDermid, a professor emeritus at York University, who has studied developers’ campaign contributions, but not since the province banned corporate and union donations in 2016.
He reviewed The Trillium’s work. “A very dispiriting list, same characters, same addresses as I was recording 10-20 years ago,” he said in an email.
He echoed Taylor’s call for better disclosure of donations and said the donations should be made public before election day, instead of months later, and he urged the media to cover the issue more.
MacDermid’s concerns are rooted in the kind of home building some developers engage in.
“Why do we tolerate the excessive expense of a home building that allows developers to reap huge profits from what is a political process -- not a market process -- that multiplies the value of their land many times through the process of rezoning?” he said.
“Of course developers are going to try to manipulate the political process in their own favour. This influence and manipulation is how they seize outrageous profits, money that is ultimately provided by or taken from homebuyers.”
MacDermid believes the same was true over a decade ago.
“Unsustainable urban sprawl, high transportation costs, environmental degradation, and a weak sense of community that undermines political organization and representation, are all traceable to pro-development councils and the provincial regulatory framework for urban development,” he wrote in a paper that examined developer contributions in the GTA in 2006.
The nature of development and the political influence held by land developers and builders is a hot political issue at Queen’s Park these days.
The super donors The Trillium identified are connected with many of the same development companies that donated to the Progressive Conservatives and are involved in the ongoing controversy over the opening of parts of the Greenbelt for development.
The TACC Group is the owner of the most Greenbelt land being opened, including a large piece of the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve. Carlo De Gasperis, chief operating officer of The TACC Group of Companies and co-founder of OPUS Homes is a super donor at the municipal level, having donated $27,450 to GTA candidates in 2022. Same goes for TACC president Silvio De Gasperis, who gave $34,450.
People identified as associated with the De Gasperis’ development companies gave $188,900 to GTA candidates in 2022, by our count.
Fieldgate, associated with donations totalling $161,350, had one of its properties removed from the Greenbelt last year. Neither Tribute nor Paradise Developments -- with donations totalling $39,000 and $141,600, respectively -- had land removed, but both were identified in a recent report by the province’s integrity commissioner as being involved with Greenbelt land investments.
Another super donor -- albeit, a relatively minor one -- was also featured in the commissioner’s report as “Mr. X,” an unregistered lobbyist who allegedly helped get a piece of land in Clarington out of the Greenbelt.
He’s since been identified by news outlets including The Trillium as a former mayor of Clarington who now runs a consulting company called Municipal Solutions and a small development company, among other ventures. He made donations of $1,200 to 11 candidates, totalling $13,200.
Another of the companies was in the news for a different reason: StateView Homes’ projects have gone into receivership following an accusation of cheque kiting by TD Bank. Individuals we associated with the company donated $58,100 to GTA candidates in 2022.
We reached out to the 35 elected politicians who’d accepted $10,000 or more from our super donors list. Here are the responses from those who replied.
Bonnie Crombie, mayor of Mississauga
“Mayor Crombie receives support from a diverse range of individuals, across a variety of sectors, who believe in her vision for the future of Mississauga. This includes individuals who recognize Mayor Crombie’s work to address the housing crisis -- one of the most pressing challenges facing cities across the GTA.
“Mayor Crombie’s commitment remains to serve the best interests of the city and its residents while upholding the highest standards of transparency and accountability, including following all campaign contribution rules by only accepting donations from individuals, not businesses.
“With a maximum limit of $1,200 per person as per municipal campaign regulations, Mayor Crombie takes great care to ensure that all campaign contributions are in compliance. She remains committed to upholding the highest ethical standards and adhering to all municipal campaign rules and regulations, which includes the submission of campaign finance information to the City Clerk’s Office after every election.”
Carolyn Parrish, Mississauga councillor
“Thank you for your email request. I cannot comment on the scope, methodology or accuracy of your analysis of election donations as I am not privy to the particulars of your investigation.
“To the best of my knowledge and belief, the contributions referenced are true and accurate and in compliance with election contribution policies and laws governing municipal campaigns.”
Kevin Ashe, mayor of Pickering
"Thank you for your inquiry regarding campaign finances in the 2022 municipal elections in the GTA. I want to be unequivocal in stating that campaign donations, as per the stringent regulations in Ontario's Municipal Elections Act, do not create any undue influence on my actions or decisions as a public official.
"The Act establishes clear rules and limits on contributions to ensure that campaign funds are exclusively dedicated to campaign-related expenses, including advertising, canvassing, public events, and outreach. Every contribution is subject to exhaustive disclosure and reporting, guaranteeing complete transparency by publicly disclosing both the source and amount of donations.
"I am deeply committed to upholding the utmost integrity of our democratic process. I fully endorse the existing legal framework, which safeguards against any undue influence from campaign donations. My unwavering dedication is to serve our community with transparency, fairness, and the highest ethical standards."
Elizabeth Roy, mayor of Whitby
“Every campaign I have run since 1997 has strictly adhered to Ontario’s election finance laws. My campaign finances are transparent and available online for anyone to view.
“Campaigning for municipal office is an expensive undertaking. Many candidates are not in a position to donate the maximum $25,000 to their own campaign -- and running for office shouldn’t be limited to those with financial means.
“I welcome robust conversations about campaign financing at all levels of government – for example, why campaign contributions for municipal candidates are not eligible for federal or provincial income tax credits.
“As a female mayor, I think it’s important to note that women make up less than half of elected members on municipal councils in Canada and less than one-fifth of mayors. The cost of campaigning has been identified as one of the barriers that prevents women from entering local politics.
"We should be cautious that we don’t create a climate that further discourages people from participating.
“It comes down to the person you elect to represent you. Do you trust them to make decisions in the best interest of your community? Whitby residents have put their trust in me time after time and I never take that for granted.”