The Liberal Party is warning former leadership contenders who want to run for the party in the 2015 federal election that those who went over the $100,000 leadership debt limit risk not being approved as candidates.
The warning seems to be directed at David Bertschi and George Takach, who owed $155,025 and $136,000 as of last November's reports to Elections Canada. It could serve to smooth the road for Andrew Leslie, the former head of the Canadian army, to win a nomination.
"The suggestion has been made that one or more candidates may have failed to adhere to the maximum debt rule that was included in the leadership financial rules adopted by the party," Jack Siegel, chair of the "national green light committee," said in a letter to former leadership contenders.
Taking on more than $100,000 in leadership race debt "may therefore be a relevant factor in considering the green-lighting of a candidate, if his or her campaign did in fact exceed the debt limit," Siegel wrote in the letter, which the party provided to CBC News.
Bertschi ran for the Liberals in Ottawa-Orleans in 2011, losing to Conservative MP Royal Galipeau, and wants the nomination for the 2015 election. That's the same riding in which Leslie plans to run for the nomination.
Barring Bertschi, who already has an established organization in the riding, for going over the debt limit would clear the path for Leslie, who was featured at the party's convention last month as a keynote speaker, and has been named as an adviser to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
A website dedicated to making Leslie the candidate in Ottawa-Orleans tells supporters, "This time, let's make sure we win!"
Promised debt-free campaign
Bertschi challenged Trudeau for the party's leadership in the race that ran from 2012 to 2013. Bertschi had promised a debt-free national leadership campaign.
The party has promised open nominations, but, as Siegel points out in the letter, party leaders have to endorse a nominee for a person to be acknowledged as the party's candidate.
"The prospect of an individual with the profile of a previous leadership contestant being nominated as a candidate of the Liberal Party, and then having that nomination revoked is something that would be most embarrassing and troubling to candidate and party alike," Siegel wrote in the letter.
Bertschi said he's raised over $300,000 for the Liberals in Ottawa-Orleans and that he's confident he can win the nomination if it's fair and open. He said he doesn't interpret the letter as a warning to him not to try to win the nomination.
"Not at all. Not even in the slightest," Bertschi said in an interview with CBC News.
"I have total faith that when the leader says he wants an open, transparent, democratic electoral process that he means it in 308 ridings."
Bertschi said he's paid off one bank loan entirely and owes between $110,000 and $120,000.
Must repay leadership debt
Bertschi said he's hearing rumours that "perhaps certain entities are a little concerned that we're quite well-positioned to win the nomination if it's done in a fair and democratic way."
"I'm proud, as are the people of Ottawa-Orleans, that Mr. Leslie is contemplating running in Orleans because it's a winnable riding, which few people were interested in doing when I took on the mantle and challenged the incumbent Conservative."
The party is also warning former leadership contenders that they must be on the way to repaying their leadership debt.
Siegel said "measures for complete debt repayment" will be part of the process used to decide whether nominees get the party's endorsement.
"In order for your candidacy to be approved by the national green light committee, it will therefore be necessary for you to provide a written report of all of your debt retirement progress to date, as well as a concrete and detailed plan for your continued debt retirement. This is an absolute requirement to the approval of your candidacy," Siegel wrote.
Even current MPs won't be endorsed if they have leadership debt unless they've submitted to the party "a reasonable and practical debt retirement plan." That endorsement will be revoked "if past and ongoing progress and compliance with that plan is not demonstrated," Siegel said.
Marc Garneau, Joyce Murray and Trudeau, who won the race to become federal Liberal leader, already sit in the party's caucus.
Garneau, the MP for Westmount-Ville-Marie, owes $99,100 between loans and unpaid claims, according to his latest filing with Elections Canada.
Murray was uncontested for the nomination in Vancouver Quadra earlier this month.
A spokesman for Hedy Fry, the MP for Vancouver Centre who ran for the Liberal leadership in 2006, said she has brought down her debt to $42,000.
Dogged by past leadership debts
The letter was also sent to candidates from the 2006 race who still have leadership debt. That includes Ken Dryden, Hedy Fry and Joe Volpe, according to records filed with Elections Canada last year.
A number of leadership candidates were dogged by the debt they accumulated in trying to take over the party, partly due to strict rules that limited donors to a maximum $1,200 contribution per leadership race. The Conservative government's proposed changes to election laws include a measure that would limit those donations to a maximum per year instead of per race.
Martha Hall Findlay, who was a leadership contestant in 2006 and in 2013, said in an email that she fully agrees with the party and that she learned the hard way not to take on too much debt.
Hall Findlay said after repaying the rest of her 2006 debt in 2012, she kept her latest leadership campaign in the black from the beginning.
In some cases, including in Hall Findlay's case, candidates owed themselves but had to repay the money so that it didn't count as an illegal contribution. Candidates' contributions to themselves are subject to limits under federal election laws.
"It was tough — I understand that, even now, several of the 2006 candidates still haven’t done so.... Unfortunately, several of the 2013 candidates did not learn the same lesson, and although I have high respect for all of them, I agree that the [Liberal Party] should be firm in this regard," said Hall Findlay, who says she won't run for a seat in Parliament in 2015.