Conservative MP Scott Reid attacked Canada's election watchdog Tuesday, calling him "overly aggressive" and arguing it was "inappropriate" to notify the House Speaker about a dispute with an MP.
Marc Mayrand, the chief electoral officer who oversees Elections Canada, appeared before the procedure and House affairs committee to discuss the dispute between Elections Canada and Manitoba Conservative MP James Bezan.
Bezan has gone to court to fight the agency over whether he overspent in his 2006, 2008 and 2011 election campaigns. Elections Canada says the MP re-used signs and assessed them at a lower value because they were used, when the law requires the signs to be assessed at their purchase value.
The law's intent is to ensure incumbents don't have a financial advantage over new candidates.
Under the Canada Elections Act, MPs who don't comply with the rules for filing expenses can be barred from sitting or voting in the House. Mayrand wrote to House Speaker Andrew Scheer last May to tell him about the dispute with Bezan, MP for Selkirk-Interlake, Man., as well as with Shelly Glover, MP for Saint Boniface, Man.
Glover's campaign reached a compliance agreement with Elections Canada shortly before she was appointed to cabinet.
MPs can go to court and ask to be relieved of the requirement to update their filings, something Bezan has done.
'Need to alert the Speaker'
Reid attacked Mayrand for writing the letters to Scheer.
"You think that you are obliged to act before the courts have been consulted?" Reid asked Mayrand during the committee meeting.
"I feel that I need to alert the Speaker. I'm not taking a position on the right[s] of the member, simply advising the Speaker of the situation," Mayrand said.
Reid pointed out that meant they differ on whether Mayrand was wrong to do so.
"I think you acted in a manner the act does not require you to act and I think it was an overly aggressive manner which was frankly inappropriate. You disagree with that, which is cool. I would hope that you would be supportive of your own position of this," Reid said.
Reid asked Mayrand whether he felt the agency should investigate previous campaign overspending even if an MP won a subsequent election, essentially rendering moot the earlier result.
Mayrand referred to the section of the Canada Elections Act that applies to maintaining accurate campaign spending records.
"Section 463 doesn't make a difference between how long [ago] the election took place," Mayrand said.
"It's not because an election is gone that there's no longer a duty to account for that," he added.
"The whole purpose of the legislation is to ensure that there be accurate returns [filings]. And it's all about transparency and accountability for the expenditures and the transactions that occur during the campaign. And again, from time to time, information may require that returns be amended to reflect accurately what happened during that campaign."
Can't sit 'until they've obtained this relief'
Mayrand suggested MPs need a court decision before they can continue to do their work.
"They have to apply to a court to be relieved and until they’ve obtained this relief, they can’t sit," Mayrand said, speaking to reporters outside the committee room.
In most cases where the election agency threatened an MP's ability to vote, he said, the MPs "were very diligent, went right to the court right away and got relief from the deadline."
Mayrand said the threat of losing the ability to vote is a very effective tool in the election agency's arsenal. He said it's been used repeatedly over the years and "only very, very few cases have gone to the Speaker," he said.
"The vast majority of candidates, when they’re brought to this situation, will correct their return or [in a] timely [way] seek a court order to be relieved of a deadline... Because candidates understand the importance of those provisions and they act accordingly."
It's also possible to file the return under protest and still pursue relief in court, he added.
Mayrand said lawyers for Elections Canada and for Bezan are in "very active discussion" over how to resolve the situation without having a court hearing.
Bezan, in a June 4 statement, referred to the dispute as an accounting disagreement and said he had complied with the law.
'Difficult' to gather evidence
Mayrand reiterated a call for Elections Canada to be given more power because witnesses in a number of cases are refusing to speak to them.
"What we’ve seen in the cases where there is an investigation triggered, it’s getting difficult for the commissioner to gather the evidence. He doesn’t get necessarily all the time the co-operation that he would reasonably expect from parties who have information on a file," Mayrand said.
Commissioner of Canada Elections Yves Côté is responsible for enforcing the Canada Elections Act.
The Conservatives have been promising to introduce an update to Canadian election law. Last April, then-minister of state for democratic reform Tim Uppal said he would introduce legislation that week. The next day, the government cancelled the bill's introduction, and won't say when they will bring it back. They also wouldn't explain why they yanked it. Mayrand says he hasn't been consulted on the legislation.
Ontario MP Jeff Watson was facing a similar complaint by Elections Canada over his 2011 election spending. In a statement to CBC News, Watson said he made changes to his campaign filing last July, less than a month after CBC News first reported on the dispute. Elections Canada has since dropped its case.
This isn't the first time Conservative MPs have faced corrections to their campaign files, or even allegations of wrongdoing.
Last year, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Peter Penashue stepped down to run in a byelection after CBC News revealed his campaign had dramatically overspent and taken corporate donations, which aren't allowed under Canadian law. Penashue lost his re-election bid.
Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro has been charged with intentionally overspending in his 2008 campaign and trying to cover it up. Del Mastro maintains he ran a clean campaign.
This story has been updated from a previous version to make it clear that MP Jeff Watson has resolved his dispute with Elections Canada.Dec 12, 2013 2:00 PM ET