London

Invoice for attack ads and anonymous website 'a complete fabrication,' Van Meerbergen says

An invoice showing that Ward 10 Coun. Paul Van Meerbergen paid Blackridge Strategy $1,320 to provide an anonymous website and attack ads against his opponent Virginia Ridley is 'a complete fabrication,' the councillor says.

Van Meerbergen has previously said he had 'no knowledge' of the anonymous smear website

(City of London)

An invoice showing that Ward 10 Coun. Paul Van Meerbergen paid Blackridge Strategy $1,320 to provide an anonymous website and attack ads against his opponent Virginia Ridley is "a complete fabrication," the councillor says. 

An invoice from Blackridge Strategy to Van Meerbergen released earlier today appears to show he was the one billed for the PR firm's work for "attack ads against Virginia Ridley" and "anonymous website." The invoice is dated August 24, 2018 and is stamped "PAID." 

 Van Meerbergen has previously denied any knowledge of the creation of the websites and attack ads and this afternoon emailed several members of the London media, stating "I can assure you that I did not receive this invoice and I did not pay it. The invoice is a complete fabrication. The explanation for it lies with the firm who produced it."

CBC News has requested an interview with Van Meerbergen and reporters are speaking to Blackridge Strategy's Amir Farahi about the information. 

A Blackridge Strategy invoice sent to Paul Van Meerbergen shows he paid money for attack ads and an anonymous website against his opponent, Virginia Ridley. (Supplied)

The invoice is part of a number of documents made public by London lawyer Susan Toth, who is representing Ridley and Coun. Maureen Cassidy, both candidates in the last municipal election who were targetted with anonymous websites and social media sites that criticized their voting records and their character. 

The women obtained a court order requiring Blackridge Stragtegy to turn over detailed client information related to the two anonymous websites and two Facebook pages. The pages were made to look like they were made by Ridley and Cassidy campaigns, but instead were full of attack information. 

In May, Van Meerbergen refused to release his contract with Blackridge and mocked the possibility that there would be anything incriminating in such documents. "Who in their right mind would sign a contract and have it in print and writing, 'oh yeah, we'll have fake websites, that will be $600,'" he told CBC at the time.

"The level to which these campaigns stooped, including false, misleading and anonymous attacks, was unprecedented for London," Toth says. 

Ridley and Cassidy are considering lawsuits against Van Meerbergen, who won against Ridley in Ward 10, and Ward 5 candidate Randy Warden, who lost to Cassidy but hired Blackridge to create fake lawn signs and an anonymous website that disparaged Cassidy.

A text exchange between Randy Warden and Amir Farahi, part of documentation received through a court order.

In June, Warden said he didn't see the smear website targeting Cassidy but called it his responsibility. He also said he was not aware that negative websites were being created or that he knew about campaign signs directing voters to the fake sites.  

Screen grabs of text messages between Warden and Amir Farahi, one of the Blackridge owners, show Warden giving a thumbs up when Farahi says he'll be "setting up the Maureen website soon." 

In an email exchange, Warden gives Farahi some of Cassidy's 2015 campaign literature, and says "She campaigned on a platform of integrity. In my opinion, this is a great vulnerability for her." He signs off, "Over to you for interpretation. Cheers, Randy." 

CBC News has reached out to Warden by phone and email and has not heard back. 

Blackridge responds

"Blackridge Strategy regrets misrepresenting its role in developing the websites for clients. These actions were an attempt to protect the confidentiality of said clients. Blackridge has learned from the experience and has moved on," Laura Blondeau, the PR firm's vice president of communications, wrote in response to the documents. 

Blackridge has learned from the experience and has moved on- Laura Blondeau, Blackridge VP communications

"As for the information shared in Ms. Toth's statement: we were ordered by a judge to share client information on this issue and we did. We will continue to abide by the law.  That being said, we did sign non-disclosure agreements with the clients which we continue to respect. We won't discuss clients, past or present, publicly."

'A long process'

"This has been a long process for my family and I, and having the information and making it available to the public finishes this chapter and allows us to move on to the next," Ridley said in a statement.

"By seeing this process through, I only hope that we have been successful in deterring this type of behaviour in future elections and can return to civil, democratic, fair and law-abiding practices where people stand on their own values and ideas, and not spend time or effort in unlawful and dirty tricks to deceive voters and spread misinformation." 

Van Meerbergen has previously said it was his campaign volunteer, Barry Phillips, who paid for the smear website, without the candidate's knowledge. 

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