Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Best Journalism of the summer

This, I think, is the third story they have unleashed on this topic. Brilliant. Two of the best in the biz....

Election watchdog 'examining' disputed Tory ad expenses
Elections Canada referred case to commissioner

Tim Naumetz and Glen McGregor
The Ottawa Citizen

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Federal election watchdog William Corbett is "examining" disputed advertising expenses claimed by Conservative candidates in the last election.

Elections Canada confirmed yesterday that it referred the issue last April to Mr. Corbett, who as Commissioner of Canada Elections has the power to pass on cases to prosecutors.

"The Chief Electoral Officer has asked the Commissioner of Canada Elections to examine the circumstances surrounding the media-buy program," said Serge Fleylel, an Elections Canada spokesman.

Mr. Corbett's involvement indicates the potentially serious nature of the dispute between Elections Canada and the Conservatives over $1 million in advertising costs its candidates paid the party, after the party transferred the money to them.

Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc says the decision to send the case to the commissioner raises the stakes for the Conservatives.

"For a whole file to be referred to the commissioner, separate and apart from the normal Elections Canada bureaucracy, kicks it up to another level," he said.

Violations of the Elections Act that Mr. Corbett enforces are subject to fines and imprisonment.

There could also be political consequences for the Conservatives if it were proved they broke the rules during an election campaign they ran largely on ethics.

The Conservative party would not comment on Mr. Corbett's involvement. The party says it is in full compliance with the Elections Act.

The month after Mr. Corbett was asked to examine the media buy, 34 official agents for Tory candidates took Elections Canada to Federal Court. They are challenging Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand's refusal to approve some candidate claims for radio and television advertising from the 2006 campaign.

If the court upholds Mr. Mayrand's decision, the party could be forced to list the cost of the advertising under its national campaign, pushing it over its allowed expense limit, in violation of the Elections Act.

Elections Canada disallowed some Conservative candidates from claiming the advertising expenses, saying the candidates failed to provide "clear evidence" that they incurred the advertising costs.

"The need for such evidence became imperative when doubts arose as to whether the expense was incurred by the candidates and whether these candidates and their agents had in fact contracted for the purchase of the advertising," wrote Barbara McIsaac, lawyer for Elections Canada, in a letter filed in Federal Court.

The ads were funded through what some officials referred to as an "in-and-out," whereby the party transferred money to candidates who bought the ads, Ms. McIsaac wrote.

Transfers from political parties to candidates are common among all parties and legal, the Conservative party says.

The "regional" ads in question promoted the candidates who paid for them, as indicated by the "tag lines" that referred to their official agents, the party says. Payments were processed via the party as an "administrative convenience," the party says.

A letter to Elections Canada from the media placement agency that handled the Tory ads says the 2005-06 campaign media buy for the party was divided into four sections: party ads for Quebec, ads for the rest of Canada, and two separate buys for participating candidates inside and outside Quebec.

"Appropriate invoices reflecting goods and services rendered were separately issued to participating Conservative candidates and to the registered party based on the four segments identified," said the letter from Retail Media, the company the Tories used. The letter is part of the court record.

Several Conservative candidates have separately told Elections Canada and the Citizen that they believed the money they paid was for national campaign advertising.

Yesterday, one former Conservative candidate said he was surprised to learn that his official agent was among the 34 named as applicants in the Federal Court case.

Gary Caldwell, who ran an unsuccessful campaign in the Sherbrooke, Que.-area riding of Compton-Stanstead, said he did not know his riding was involved in the litigation.

"I assumed we weren't in that because I never authorized that," he said. He said he was content with Elections Canada's decision to disallow the expense claim for ads he bought through the party and had considered the matter closed.

In an amended financial statement, the expense was listed instead as an amount not included in campaign expenses and became ineligible for the 60-per- cent rebate Elections Canada pays for allowed costs.

"It is rather a strange position that we find ourselves in," Mr. Caldwell said. "Technically, I'm contesting it and verbally I'm saying we're not."

Mr. Caldwell is running as candidate for the Green party in the next federal election. He said he left the Conservatives because he was dissatisfied with the government's efforts on environmental issues and with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's failure to strengthen the role of MPs in the House of Commons.

The Conservatives say candidates were not consulted about the case because the ads were bought by their official agents.

Once approved by a judge, the name of Mr. Caldwell's agent and several others will be dropped from the case.

Lawyers for both sides have agreed to let the names of only two agents stand in the case. In the election, the agents represented losing Conservative candidates in Dartmouth, N. S., and London, Ont.

Whatever decision the court makes in those cases will likely set a precedent for the other candidates' returns.
© The Ottawa Citizen 2007

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