Brad Trost's leadership campaign showed its might when the Saskatchewan MP came in a surprising fourth in the Conservatives' hotly contested leadership race.
Now, the man who ran Trost's campaign says he is considering turning that force against the Conservative Party itself, as the conflict over a leaked membership list becomes increasingly bitter.
As CBC News first reported, party officials believe someone in Trost's campaign leaked a Conservative membership list to the National Firearms Association — a violation of members' privacy that resulted in several complaints. On Monday, the campaign said it was told it faces a $50,000 fine.
Campaign manager Joseph Ben-Ami insists his team didn't leak the list. He said the party failed to conduct a full investigation into the allegations and said he believes his campaign is the victim of a "frame job."
"It's like Communist China, for Pete's sake," Ben-Ami said.
'Salted' list traced
The Conservative Party was able to trace the list back to the Trost campaign through a process known as "salting." That involved giving each leadership campaign a slightly different copy of the membership list, which allowed the party to trace potential leaks.
'If we don't get our money back tomorrow, we will start to take action.' — Joseph Ben-Ami, Trost campaign manager
Ben-Ami said his campaign team is a "very small but very experienced" group, and its members would all have been aware their copy of the list was salted, a technique he said has been standard practice for decades. He also notes there would be no obvious "quid pro quo" for the Trost campaign from the National Firearms Association, which gave Trost a "B" on its report card for candidates during the Conservative campaign.
Instead, Ben-Ami said he believes the list could have been leaked from someone in party headquarters.
He said since the party has not provided any evidence that the leak came from within Trost's team, he doesn't believe they should be fined.
The problem for Ben-Ami is that the party already has the money. All leadership campaigns were required to submit a $50,000 "compliance deposit" by the end of last year in order to remain in the race. Any fines for bad behaviour during the race would be subtracted from that sum. The deposit is supposed to be returned to campaigns Thursday, said Ben-Ami.
"If we don't get our money back tomorrow, we will start to take action."
He said that could involve legal action, but he believes there are other options too.
"So far, we haven't reached out to party members," he said, noting the campaign could encourage the thousands who supported Trost to call the party and complain about the way the campaign is being treated.
Conservative Party officials have expressed concern over the leak.
"This would clearly be against the rules, it's just a matter of what the evidence is," Dan Nowlan, chair of the party's leadership election organizing committee, told CBC News last week — before Trost's campaign had been associated with the leak.
"It's an extremely serious issue. Having a third party have access to our party membership list is something that's just clearly not acceptable," Nowlan said.
Since then, the party has had little to say.
"We're still in the process. Nothing new to add," spokesperson Cory Hann said on Wednesday.
Striving for unity
Ben-Ami says Trost himself never had access to the party's membership list and is not getting personally involved in the dispute.
"He's waiting to see how the thing develops. [Trost is] loyal to the party and he's loyal to the new leader," he said.
That new leader, Andrew Scheer, has made keeping the Conservative Party united one of his central objectives. This kind of infighting undoubtedly won't help.
Still, Ben-Ami himself said he can't simply stay silent in light of the way he feels party officials have handled the leak.
"How more strongly can I put it than that this behaviour is so incompatible for what we stand for as Conservatives?"