Wednesday, June 06, 2012

"Who me?" When the investigator becomes the investigated!

Conservative robocalls defender under investigation for election offences

By Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher
Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro has been the Conservative party's spokesman on Election Canada's investigation of misleading calls in the 2011 election. He answers most questions about the issue in the House of Commons and has represented the party on TV panel discussions about robocalls. There is no sign the Prime Minister's Office knew Del Mastro was under investigation until asked for comment by Postmedia News on Wednesday. The office has yet to respond to the request. (Photograph by: Chris Wattie, Reuters)

OTTAWA — The MP leading the Conservative government’s defence in the robocalls scandal is himself under investigation by Elections Canada for alleged election law violations related to voter-contact calls made by his campaign in 2008.

Elections Canada says in a court document it has reasonable grounds to believe offences were committed by Dean Del Mastro, who serves as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s parliamentary secretary, and by his campaign’s official agent.

In an interview on Wednesday, Del Mastro denied the allegations, which have not been proved in court. Del Mastro said his audited financial statements are all correct.

The allegations of Elections Act violations are listed in the court order compelling Frank Hall, owner of Holinshed Research Group, to produce emails, invoices and other documents related to work he did for Del Mastro.

An invoice submitted in a small claims court dispute brought by Holinshed against Del Mastro purports to show that Holinshed performed voter identification work as well as get-out-the-vote calls on election day for Del Mastro’s 2008 campaign. The company, once based in Ottawa, now no longer appears operational.

The production order, issued in response to an investigator’s sworn statement, says Del Mastro is suspected of incurring costs that breached his campaign’s spending limit by more than $17,000.

He is also suspected of paying $21,000 for election expenses with a cheque drawn on his personal bank account — which, if proven to be a personal contribution, would dramatically exceed the $2,100 contribution limit for candidates.

Those violations are each punishable by a fine of $5,000 or imprisonment for up to five years.

The production order also names Del Mastro’s official agent Richard McCarthy, who was responsible for ensuring expense reports filed with Elections Canada were accurate. He is suspected of improperly accepting the $21,000 alleged personal donation from Del Mastro, failing to include all the expenses in documents filed with Elections Canada, and knowingly filing a false claim.

No charges against Del Mastro or McCarthy have been laid and none of the allegations cited in the production order has been proved in court. The court order was obtained by Thomas Ritchie, an investigator retained on contract by Elections Canada last year.

Del Mastro said in a telephone interview Wednesday that he was not aware of the investigation.

“I have no knowledge of what you’re talking about,” he said.

“I stand by all of my reporting. I’ve always been above board. I’ve always followed all the rules. What I would say is, if anything, perhaps by defending my party, there’s no question that I’ve become the target of some. If someone has brought some form of allegations against me, I’ll deal with them. But I’ll deal with them through facts and truth and so be it.”

Del Mastro said he could not recall the specifics of the payment.

“You’re going back a number of years,” he said. “I don’t have specific memory of events around that, but I can tell you that I have during campaigns incurred personal expenses and then reimbursed for those expenses. I don’t think that’s uncommon.”

Neither the Del Mastro campaign expense disclosures nor the annual report for the Conservative electoral district shows a payment of $21,000 to Holinshed.

Reached at his home in Peterborough on Wednesday, McCarthy said he was not under investigation, to his knowledge.

“I don’t know anything about this,” he told the Citizen. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He recalled some dealings with Holinshed but said they had nothing to do with the election.

“There was an inappropriate disbursement made to him for something that didn’t have anything to do with the election period and then he paid it back,” he said.

“I don’t want to talk to you about this. There is no issue.” He then hung up.

For the past three months, Del Mastro has been the Conservative party’s spokesman on Elections Canada’s investigation of misleading calls in the 2011 election. He answers most questions about the issue in the House of Commons and has represented the party on TV panel discussions about robocalls.

There is no sign the Prime Minister’s Office knew Del Mastro was under investigation until asked for comment by Postmedia News on Wednesday. The office has yet to respond to the request.

The production order issued March 29 gave Hall until the end of May to hand over his correspondence with Del Mastro or his campaign, the scripts used for the voter contact calls, company payroll records and bank statements and related invoices.

Ritchie appears to be working from some documents that were also introduced in a small-claims lawsuit filed by Holinshed against Del Mastro in 2010 over other work the company says it did for him after the election.

In the small claims lawsuit the company sued Del Mastro, alleging it had not been paid for providing a voter-tracking system called GeoVote — work it says the MP requested Holinshed perform after the campaign.
 None of the allegations in this case has been proved either.

Hall mentioned in court documents that Del Mastro had also hired the company at the beginning of the election campaign to do $21,000 worth of voter ID and get-out-the-vote work and had been happy with the work.

That election work allegedly included 630 hours of telephone calling and live calls on election day, an invoice submitted in the court file purports to show. Del Mastro won the election by a wide margin.

Holinshed was paid, Hall said in the court file, with two cheques from the Peterborough riding association.

One of the cheques for $10,000 was cancelled and replaced with a $21,000 personal cheque drawn on a joint account Del Mastro held with his wife — an overpayment of $10,000 that Hall says he refunded.

The small claims court file includes a copy of a cheque, dated Aug. 18, 2008 — about three weeks before the election. The court file also includes a Holinshed invoice for $21,000 sent to the Del Mastro campaign on September 14, 2008. It appears to have been signed by campaign manager John McNutt.

After the election, Hall claimed, Del Mastro asked him to do $1,500 of additional work using some of the election data and to backdate the invoice to the election period.

Hall later checked Elections Canada filings and found that the Del Mastro campaign had declared only the $1,500 payment for the extra Holinshed work — a payment Hall said he never received — and not the $21,000 of work he performed during the election.

The filings show Del Mastro’s campaign was just $796 below its spending limit of $92,567. Any substantial additional expenses that count toward the spending limit would have breached the cap, in violation of the Election Act.

A letter in the court file shows Hall wrote to Del Mastro’s official agent, McCarthy, to alert him to a “possible mistake” in the Elections Canada filings.

McCarthy wrote back to say the first cheque for $10,000 was issued in error and the other for $11,000 had a stop-payment placed on it. McCarthy explained that he shouldn’t have paid for “annual expenses” from the campaign and instead should have pro-rated the amount for the election period.

In court documents, Del Mastro denied Holinshed’s claims and said the company completed no work for him that was satisfactory. He further alleged that any invoices for the work were “erroneous, false and were prepared prior to any services being completed.”

The small claims action appears to have gone dormant.

Hall could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Elections Canada has a track record of investigating MPs who try to secretly use their own money to exceed election spending limits, although it doesn’t typically impose tough sentences.

In 2008, former MP Wajid Khan — who was elected as a Liberal, then crossed the floor to the Conservatives — pleaded guilty to exceeding election expenses in the 2004 election in Mississauga — Streetsville, and was fined $500. Khan ran unsuccessfully as a Conservative in 2008.

In the same year, Elections Canada entered into a “compliance agreement” with Blair Wilson, who was elected in West Vancouver — Sunshine Coast — Sea to Sky Country as a Liberal in 2006. In the agreement, Wilson acknowledged paying for $9,000 in undeclared advertising expenses.

Wilson resigned from the Liberal caucus when allegations about election irregularities were made public in 2007, and was refused readmittance in 2008. He then joined the Green Party, although Parliament was dissolved before he could sit as the party’s first Green MP. He ran unsuccessfully for that party in the 2008 election.


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