Friday, August 31, 2007

The "possibility of prosecution" and the Conservatives' election spending scheme

The Globe takes the Conservatives to task in an editorial today explaining the highly suspect ad scheme that the Conservatives unhatched in the last federal election and what it means. My thoughts on this today are after the excerpt:
During the last election campaign, as federal Conservatives were vehemently attacking Liberal misdeeds, they were apparently resorting to highly irregular ploys to pay for their expenses. Party officials transferred money to local constituencies and then requested the return of that money to pay for regional advertising buys. Now local Conservative riding representatives are suing Elections Canada in Federal Court, asking for reimbursement of those expenses. Meanwhile, at the request of the Chief Electoral Officer, the Commissioner of Canada Elections is scrutinizing the Tory scheme to see whether the party's chief agent should be prosecuted for violation of the Canada Elections Act.

Whatever the outcome, the mess reflects badly on the party. During the 2006 campaign, the Conservatives proclaimed they would be accountable and transparent even as they were implementing a scheme that apparently circumvented their $18.3-million spending limit. They spent every dime of that allotment, but also transferred about $1.2-million to local candidates who had not spent their own personal maximums. That money was then given back to the party to buy regional ads that were not focused on those individual candidates.

The court case has been a revelation. Ottawa returns 60 per cent of the election expenses of individual candidates if they receive at least 10 per cent of the votes in their riding. When Elections Canada refused to pay for some candidates' advertising tabs, a lawsuit for reimbursement was filed in the name of 34 Conservative supporters. This week, as that list dropped to two official agents for two candidates, the Conservatives maintained that these were "representative cases" that could apply to the other ridings.

But the official agent for the Quebec riding of Richmond-Arthabaska told The Globe and Mail two days ago that she did not know that her name was part of the original case against Elections Canada. The riding's former Tory MP, Jean Landry, said the party deposited $26,000 in his campaign account and then used it to buy advertising that was not specifically related to his campaign. "It wasn't for me," he said. The Tories counter this damaging remark by claiming that Mr. Landry is now flirting with the Liberals.

This is no petty matter. The Canada Elections Act specifically forbids any attempt to circumvent the rules against exceeding limits on campaign spending. Depending on whether an offence was voluntary or not, a party's chief agent could face a fine of up to $5,000 or a jail sentence of up to five years, or both.

The mere possibility of prosecution is a setback for the Conservatives, who promised to do better.
Election-financing rules are not made to be conveniently thwarted. Too clever by half is not clever at all. (emphasis added)
First of all, good for the Globe for shining a light on this mess. Playing fast and loose with election spending is the last thing anybody - especially the Harper Conservatives - should have been doing in the last election. Particularly in Quebec where the sensitivities to impropriety in spending on ads would have been most acute and where the standards followed, not to mention the law, should have been pristine for political parties. Can you imagine, in the wake of the sponsorship scandal and running on the issue, the Conservatives having the chutzpah to attempt such a scheme?

So I'm not surprised that two former Conservative candidates from Quebec, Landry and Martellli, quite willingly told Elections Canada what they knew. That the federal Conservative money they received was not for them. In Martelli's words, it was "scheming. It was money that went "in and out"." These guys likely didn't want to mess around with election spending laws in a politically sensitive climate. They objected when they found out, after the fact, that a lawsuit had been started by the federal party, in their names, to get this money back from taxpayers. In contrast to Martelli and Landry, there are apparently others who have not paid attention to the lessons learned over the past few years.

And the partisan mudslinging from the Conservatives in response to Landry's cooperation with Elections Canada is telling. Landry's flirting with the Liberals now according to the Conservatives. You see, they're playing in Karl Roveland. Attack any notion of objective truth by alleging partisanship. Annnnhhhhh, irrelevant. Alleging partisan ties won't make invoices for advertising magically appear. What's next? Are they going to accuse Elections Canada of being Liberals too? This attempt to undermine the facts by alleging partisanship should be seen for what it likely is, a desperate attempt to shade accountability.

"No petty matter" the Globe writes. That's for sure.