London

London mayor says he won't work with PR firm linked to election smear campaigns

Months after websites accusing two councillors of lack of integrity and child abuse were taken down amid a heated municipal election campaign, a court ordered the names behind the Internet sites to be revealed.

Amir Farahi and Ronald Young were the registrants and administrators of sites attacking two women candidates

Virginia Ridley and Maureen Cassidy (Supplied)

London's mayor says he will no longer do business with Blackridge Strategy, whose owner is being linked in court documents to two websites that smeared female candidates during the fall municipal election campaign. 

Negative campaign websites using the names of two city councillors who were seeking re-election were registered using the name Amir Farahi, court-ordered records reveal. Farahi is the owner of Blackridge Strategy, which ran the campaigns of about a dozen municipal election campaigns, most running on an anti-bus-rapid transit platform. 

Amir Farahi in 2017. (Rebecca Zandbergen/CBC News)

"I read the reports in the media today that court evidence now exists connecting two London businessmen with fake websites that targeted two candidates in our last municipal election," Mayor Ed Holder said in a statement. 

"The media has also correctly reported that my election campaign, like many campaigns last fall, employed a firm owned by one of the wrongdoers, Blackridge Strategy, to handle our website and social media messaging. In light of the court documents reported today, I will not deal with Blackridge for any purpose in the future."

Former city councillor Virginia Ridley and current city councillor Maureen Cassidy went to court to uncover who registered maureencassidy.ca and virginiaridley.ca in the midst of the fall municipal election campaign.

The two websites contained negative information about the two councillors, including accusing Ridley of child abuse for bringing her child to a budget meeting and calling out Cassidy for a lack of integrity. Because of the domain names, the websites looked like they were created by the candidates. 

"This experience was an affront to the democratic process. I do not want this style of politics in our community," Ridley said in a statement. 

"This was not an attack or critique of my politics or political record, it was a personal attack on me and my family." 

CBC News has reached out to Farahi, Young and the people listed at the registered addresses for comment. 

No one answered the door at the home addresses listed for Farahi or Young.

Neighbours of the home address associated with Young said a middle-aged couple has lived there for many years, neither whom are named "Ronald Young." Land registry documents confirmed the home is not registered to Young. 

One of the billing addresses for Farahi is listed as 717 Richmond Street, a building owned by London land baron Shmuel Farhi, for whom Farahi has worked. 

When CBC News visited the Richmond Street address during the election, at the time the headquarters for Blackridge Strategy, a reporter was asked to leave and served with legal documents. 

No one answered the door at the Blackridge Strategy office on Wellington Street, either. 

Registration changed hands

According to information from the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), maureencassidy.ca was registered in 2014 by Cassidy, but in May 2018 re-registered to someone who used Farahi's name, private email address, phone number and home address.  

The ownership was transferred to someone using the name Ronald Young on Oct. 3, 2018, with the email maureencassidycampaign@gmail.com and an address in Stoneybrook. 

According to CIRA, virginiaridley.ca was registered by Farahi in September 2017 and transferred to Young on Oct. 3, 2018. 

Farahi said he was framed

Ridley said in her court filings she suspected Farahi, who now runs Blackridge Strategy, a public relations company that was running the campaigns of several anti-bus-rapid-transit candidates. 

Farahi gave an interview to CTV News in October, denying he was behind the websites, saying instead his identity was stolen and he was being framed. 

Cassidy was re-elected, but Ridley was not. 

"This was not just one off-the-cuff tweet or blog," said Susan Toth, Ridley and Cassidy's lawyer. 

"Money and time was spent to attack two women candidates. This successful application shows that the internet is not a wild, wild west where comments can be made with impunity." 

Toth filed paperwork to get information about who registered the two domains and a judge ordered GoDaddy.com, a website host, and Wix.com, a website building service, to release information about the identity and contact information of the people who registered and purchased the domain names. 

Farahi and Young's names, their phone numbers, and street addresses were used to register the domain names with GoDaddy and Wix. Farahi's credit card number was also listed to pay for services.  

Toth and her clients are still waiting for information from Facebook and a blog that was written, also with negative information about Ridley and Cassidy. 

About the Author

Kate Dubinski

Reporter/Editor

Kate Dubinski is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in London, Ont. You can email her at kate.dubinski@cbc.ca.

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