London

How they did it: Inside the search for who smeared Maureen Cassidy and Virginia Ridley

Here's a look at how two city councillors and a team of lawyers -- all women -- figured out who was behind a smear campaign during the municipal election.

It was Virginia Ridley's digging that first led to clues about who was behind the attack websites

It just didn't sit right with them, the fact that someone had called out their integrity, their honesty and their parenting, and wasn't going to be held accountable. 

So Coun. Maureen Cassidy and former councillor Virginia Ridley hired a London lawyer to fight to get documents revealed that would show who was behind the signs and websites that caused them distress and anguish. 

Here's a look at how the three women did it, based on affidavits filed with the court in an effort to get access to the identities of those behind the sites. 

Virginia Ridley

Ridley was running for re-election in Ward 10, after one term in office.

On Oct. 2, she states in her affidavit that she discovered someone had created a website in her name, called virginiaridley.ca.

A Facebook page was also created and contained the same information, Ridley said in her affidavit.

The website and Facebook site were devastating for me to review.- Virginia Ridley

"The website and Facebook site were devastating for me to review," she said.

The site accused her of being "a colossal spendthrift, greedy, irresponsible and simply unacceptable candidate for Ward 10."

More upsetting was the part of the website which accused her of child abuse, because she'd brought her son to a budget meeting.

According to the affidavit, Ridley observed that the language between the fake websites and what PR strategist Amir Farahi had written in a recent blog and petition were similar.

Farahi is the owner of Blackridge Strategy, the company that ran the campaigns of a dozen candidates, including the mayor. 

Later that night, Ridley figured out that GoDaddy was the host of the website and that it had been built using Wix.com.

"I wanted to try to get the website taken down," she said.

Like an amateur sleuth, Ridley clicked on a button on wix.com for account holders who'd lost their username, login or password. This took her to a page that asked her to enter the domain name.

She did that, and then was asked for a cell phone number.

When she entered her own cell number, she got an error message.

Ridley tried again, entering the fake site's domain name and then Farahi's cell phone number.

"I received confirmation that a message had been sent to the phone number to reset the username and/or password."

"I did this around midnight," Ridley said in court filings. "The website was taken down by the next morning."

On Oct. 11, the affidavit states that she called a toll-free number for GoDaddy, where a customer service rep confirmed to her that the registered owner of the website was Farahi.

Maureen Cassidy

Cassidy was running for re-election in Ward 5, after one term in office. Her rookie term was marked by scandal when it was revealed she had an affair with then-mayor Matt Brown. 

In her affidavit, Cassidy said she found out a website using the domain name maureencassidy.ca was created, and the site re-directed to a medium.com blog about her. Around the same time, she found out a Facebook page existed that mimicked the content of the blog. 

She complained to Facebook about the fake page but the social media giant said the page didn't violate its community standards. Medium.com did remove the blog, but shortly after the website maureencassidy.ca appeared with the same content. 

I felt humiliated and beaten down personally. For my children, I was heartbroken.- Maureen Cassidy

"The website, blog and Facebook page were devastating for me to review. Each contained inflammatory, derogatory and blatantly misconstrued information, accusing me of wasteful spending, being anti-free speech and being 'unfit for office,'" Cassidy wrote in her court fillings. 

"The website, blog and Facebook page suggested I had no integrity and that I thought I was above the law." 

On Oct. 2, driving with her 19-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, she came upon signs directing people to the website. The signs looked similar to her own campaign signs, but instead had the word "Integrity???" written on them. 

There were dozens of them on Richmond Street and Western Road, Cassidy said. 

"I felt humiliated and beaten down personally. For my children, I was heartbroken." 

The intent, Cassidy said, was a public shaming, designed to crush her as a candidate and as a person. 

On Oct. 3, Cassidy spoke to Ridley who was the subject to a nearly identical website and Facebook page. 

Susan Toth

Toth has long been a fighter for the underdog, taking on human rights and employment law cases.

She has fought the practice of carding as a member of the London Police Services Board. The practice is seen as disproportionately targeting people of colour.

Toth says she doesn't want women to be discouraged from running in municipal elections because of such smear campaigns as Cassidy and Ridley endured.

"You can't hide behind the anonymity of the internet,"​​​​​​- Susan Toth

"Women often don't want to run for politics because of these kinds of smear campaigns. This is us saying, no, we are going to put a cap on what we will tolerate as a society and within the democratic process," Toth said.

She said she's never filed a Norwich Order before. It's that tool that she used to get the judge to release the documents about who registered and paid for the two websites.

Norwich Orders are used to compel third-parties, in case GoDaddy and Wix, to preserve evidence that could be used in further litigation.

"You can't hide behind the anonymity of the internet," Toth said.

"Free wheeling, strong debate is allowed and should be allowed as part of a healthy democratic process. But if you're going to say something critical about someone about someone, put your name to it. " 

Toth said she doesn't think it's a surprise that it was two female candidates targeted but she hopes women are empowered by what Cassidy and Ridley were able to do.

"You're not powerless in this process," Toth said. "These are two strong, credible women who are in the political arena and they were able to, with a team of female lawyers, get this information."


CBC News has reached out Amir Farahi for comment. In an interview with CTV News on Oct. 25, Farahi denied creating the websites, saying his identity was stolen and he was being framed. 

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