Blackridge Strategy, city councillors respond to Van Meerbergen controversy
Paul Van Meerbergen denies paying an invoice for an anonymous website and attack ads against opponent
Blackridge Strategy owner Amir Farahi says his firm did not violate the municipal elections act but may have gone too far by "misrepresenting" their involvement in the creation of fake websites and attack ads in an effort to protect client confidentiality.
"I have strict confidentiality clauses that I must uphold and I went to extreme ends to make sure that our clients are protected, but I believe to do that, I misrepresented the role that we played in this issue," Farahi told CBC News.
His statements came hours after the release of documents from his PR firm that appear to show Ward 10 Coun. Paul Van Meerbergen paid $1,320 for an anonymous website and "attack ads" against his municipal election opponent Virginia Ridley.
The documents were released by Susan Toth, lawyer for Ridley and Coun. Maureen Cassidy, who got a court order to figure out who was behind anonymous smear websites that criticized the candidates during the 2018 municipal election.
In an emailed statement, Van Meerbergen claims he didn't receive the invoice and didn't pay for it, calling it "a complete fabrication." The Ward 10 councillor did not reply to CBC's multiple requests for an interview.
It’s a hefty accusation to accuse a company of falsifying documents. Wow.—@LauraBlondeau2
Farahi, who until earlier this month owned Blackridge Strategy with school board trustee Jake Skinner, said he cannot discuss the invoice because of client confidentiality. Skinner resigned from the firm on Jan. 3, less than a week before Blackridge, under court order, turned over documents to Toth.
The OPP is investigating Blackridge's involvement in the municipal election.
The documents' release and Van Meerbergen's part, if any, in the creation of fake websites and attack ads, have his council colleagues asking for answers.
'We deserve an explanation'
Mayor Ed Holder called the documents "extremely concerning."
"The public has an expectation of us as politicians. They expect we as public servants should respect the public trust and serve with integrity. I think the public deserves, and we all deserve, an explanation for this. Coun. Van Meerbergen should provide an explanation of what's going on. I think that's absolutely the right process and I look forward to hearing from him."
Here's what other councillors have said:
- Ward 7 Coun. Josh Morgan
"Attack ads and anonymous smear campaigns have no place in our local democracy. Any contraventions of the Municipal Elections Act should be investigated and violators held accountable."
- Ward 14. Coun. Steven Hillier
"I used (Blackridge) services for signs and a website and have nothing to add to the conversation. I already knew how to use online media and I directed my campaign and knocked on the doors and my family and I put up the signs."
- Ward 12 Coun. Elizabeth Peloza
"I'm disappointed. I try to do politics different. I'm glad it's coming out now and I'm hoping that voters who are upset will remember this. If Coun. Van Meerbergen was aware of this, he needs to own up to what he did."
- Ward 2 Coun. Shawn Lewis
"I'm cautious until I get more information. It's a little disappointing that we heard Coun. Van Meerbergen say a couple of months ago that he didn't have any knowledge of this, and now to see the invoice released with his name on it, for those particular items, the attack ads and anonymous website, it's disappointing. The councillor obviously has some explaining to do."
- Ward 6 Coun. Phil Squire
"We all agree that these kinds of attack ads shouldn't happen. Who paid for the website? We've heard certain information about an individual in the past and this document appears to contradict that. I want to be entirely fair so I want to hear from Coun. Van Meerbergen. I'm not going to jump to any conclusions. This is a document from Blackridge Strategy, and I want to hear from Coun. Van Meerbergen."
- Ward 9 Coun. Anna Hopkins
"I thank both Cassidy and Ridley for being courageous and not giving up. They felt there was an injustice and stood up. Coun. Van Meerbergen needs to explain what happened. In the past, he said he didn't have any knowledge of this, so now, when you see an invoice sent to him for $1,300, in August, when the campaign was in full swing, it needs to be explained."
- Ward 11 Coun. Stephen Turner
"I'm happy to see some information to start coming forward. I think it's important that there be transparency and I think a response from Coun. Van Meerbergen is certainly warranted."
What does the Municipal Act say?
This summer, a city committee refused to rule on whether Blackridge Strategy violated the Municipal Elections Act's third-party advertising rules, because Blackridge didn't register as a third party.
Farahi says that means the committee ruled he didn't break any third-party advertising rules, but that's murky — the firm wasn't registered as a third party advertiser, but did, in fact, provide websites and other services to candidates.
The Municipal Elections Act defines a third party advertisement as "an advertisement in any broadcast, print, electronic or other medium that promotes, supports or opposes a candidate."
The act also states that any campaign advertisement purchased by a candidate or under the direction of a candidate "shall identify the candidate."