What scandal? Critics say Premier Cannonier is dodging key questions. *Photo by Gary Foster Skelton
What scandal? Critics say Premier Cannonier is dodging key questions. *Photo by Gary Foster Skelton

Last week, a rare political event took place: a campaign contribution was publicly disclosed.

The new media venture Politica, run by local journalist Ayo Johnson, asserted that American businessman Nathan Landow, along with his associates, donated $300,000 to the OBA in the run-up to the 2012 election. At that time, Mr Landow was interested in potentially developing casino gaming on the island.

The rare glimpse behind the campaign curtain begs the question: Is it time to make all political campaign contributions in Bermuda public?

It’s an issue that has loomed over local politics for years.  Right now, there is no law that requires political parties to divulge their campaign donations.

Public disclosure of campaign contributions is rare, although not unheard of. In the 1990s, Dutch billionaire businessman and Bermuda resident John Deuss was connected with providing significant funding to at least one PLP election campaign. Media reported at the time that Mr Deuss was thought to have financed most of the campaign, which was estimated to have cost more than $2 million. Still, those numbers were never confirmed and public identification of the fiscal backers of Bermudian politics is considered unusual.

 Some, like local political activist Jonathan Starling, said a change is needed: “We need to know who is financing the parties. That way we can see who is influencing them. It’s one way to prevent corruption in our politics. 

“It allows for greater accountability. It helps ensure you have government through democracy rather than policy through hire.”

Mr Starling is not alone. In the US, where campaign donations are made public, there is a cottage industry of public interest groups who are dedicated to transparency in campaign financing.

“Voters should know to whom politicians are grateful, to whom they might be beholden,” said Viveca Novak, the editorial director for the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, DC. “People might do favours. It’s happened over and over again. It’s not as though this is sheer speculation.”

Lisa Rosenberg, a government affairs consultant for the Sunlight Foundation, said campaign transparency is an essential part of an informed electorate.

“Voters want to know who is helping people get into office,”  Ms Rosenberg told the Sun. “That is going to dictate who they’re hearing from. It may not dictate how they govern, but we all know money buys access. And voters are entitled to know who has access.”

Transparency, she said, is the best defence against corruption.

“There’s no way you’re going to dig out bribery without transparency,” Ms Rosenberg said.

Sunlight, she said, is the “best disinfectant... Transparency is important to root out corruption or even the appearance of corruption,” Ms Rosenberg said. “That’s important. If the voters don’t trust them then that’s bad for democracy as well. If voters don’t trust their government maybe they don’t vote, they could become very cynical and disenfranchized. They don’t respect their government.

The OBA’s political counterparts, the PLP, recently seized upon the news of the reported $300,000 campaign contribution, with Opposition Leader Marc Bean saying Premier Craig Cannonier should offer a full explanation on whether or not that donation bought any influence.

"Whether the OBA received the $300,000 from Landow is their own affair and will be for the Party to deal with internally,” he said. 

“What concerns me and I think the people of Bermuda is whether those funds were part of some quid pro quo related to gaming or a casino licence. 

“Only the Premier can answer that question."