Council candidate says lobbying firm paid him cash to help Toronto councillors win election
Sussex Group says work was above board, but Kevin Haynes says what he did was 'undemocratic'
A major lobbying firm paid a Toronto man in cash to help several councillors win in the 2018 municipal election — a revelation that's sparking questions about the fairness of local elections.
Dave Meslin, a municipal election expert, says lobbyists are exploiting a grey area in the Municipal Elections Act to support certain candidates and creating an unfair playing field at city hall. If an ordinary resident is trying to advocate for something, he said, "it's really difficult if you're up against lobbyists because all those lobbyists are now owed favours."
The new disclosure sheds light on a practice where lobbyists can pay for people to canvass during an election without prospective councillors ever knowing who's helping them — and without a public paper trail.
Kevin Haynes made the allegations, complete with images from emails and text messages, on Twitter this week.
Haynes said he felt like an "election hitman" on the campaign trail who was focused only on winning and pleasing Sussex Strategy Group — the major Canadian lobbying firm that paid him $20 per hour to canvass for a number of councillors.
They know those lobbyists are going to be meeting with them weeks or months down the road asking for favours.- Dave Meslin
A Sussex executive says what the company did was above board, and that like unions, advocacy organizations and other businesses, it is allowed to support candidates by freeing up employee time to help with canvassing.
It's also unclear if the politicians Haynes helped knew that lobbyists were paying for a person to knock on doors for them. Three councillors said they had no idea.
But his disclosure is leading lawyers and municipal affairs experts to question whether or not the practice is appropriate.
Haynes, who plans to run for a vacant council seat in 2021, said he now regrets what he did, calling it "as undemocratic as it gets."
In one case, he said he believes his work helped Scarborough Coun. Jennifer McKelvie eke out a narrow win of just over 150 votes, something the councillor dismissed as "ridiculous."
Regardless of how big a role he played, "there is a problem with our system that needs to be fixed," Haynes told CBC Toronto.
Sussex confirmed Haynes did work on its behalf, but said the canvassing was permitted under Ontario's Municipal Elections Act because he was considered a "volunteer" to the campaigns he worked on.
Colleen Ryan, the company's vice president, said Haynes approached Sussex in 2018 looking for opportunities and experience, and is now releasing information about his campaign work for "political gain."
"Moreover, no one associated with Sussex played a significant role in any campaign," Ryan said in an email statement.
The 'grey zone' in the Municipal Elections Act
At issue is whether or not what Haynes did is covered by a subsection of the Municipal Elections Act that city officials have flagged as problematic as far back as 2009 — though no government at Queen's Park has made a change.
Lawyer Steven Aylward, speaking generally and not about this specific case, said a company would be in line with the Act if it employed someone like Haynes, they asked to volunteer on the various campaigns, and they weren't paid more than their normal rate to do the campaign work.
Jack Siegel, another municipal law expert, says campaigns frequently take advantage of organizations offering up people to work for free. It's also "perfectly OK," he said, for companies to ask their employees if they're willing to do campaign work.
Aylward cautions, however, there is a "grey zone" when it comes to how this subsection defines employment. It's unclear, he said, if someone can be hired to just work on the campaign, or if there needs to be a pre-existing employment relationship.
Adding to that ambiguity is how Haynes was paid.
Haynes says he was never a Sussex employee and that he was paid in cash. He also says he was never given a record of employment or a T4 tax slip.
Ryan said Sussex engaged Haynes for "casual labour," and further clarified after this story was published that his "initial work and assessment was related to the 2018 campaign."
Ryan confirmed Haynes was paid in cash.
"Given the nominal amount for his limited time, he was paid in cash," Ryan said, adding she believes that is permitted by the Canada Revenue Agency.
Ryan provided no further proof that Haynes was an employee.
Did councillors know?
There is no evidence to show that any of the politicians involved hired Sussex to work on their campaigns, nor evidence to suggest they should have disclosed a direct link to Sussex in their campaign finance filings.
Siegel said it's not uncommon for councillors to not know lobbyists helped them.
"The person who is volunteering, in this expanded sense of the word, doesn't walk in with a sign on them saying 'provided courtesy of Joe's lobbying firm.' They simply come in and say, 'How can I help?'" Siegel said.
Meslin added it's a "sad reality" that lobbyists try to influence the vote.
The municipal elections expert said that boost from lobbyists later puts councillors in a difficult situation even if they didn't know about the campaign help.
"They know those lobbyists are going to be meeting with them weeks or months down the road asking for favours," he said.
Haynes said he worked for a number of councillors to varying degrees.
Those councillors include: James Pasternak, Frances Nunziata, Jim Karygiannis (who has since been removed from office for a campaign spending violation), Mark Grimes, Stephen Holyday, Michael Ford and Jennifer McKelvie.
McKelvie said Haynes was just one of 150 volunteers on her campaign.
"I was not aware that Kevin was being paid," she said in an email. "If what Kevin is saying is true, he lied to me when he said he was a volunteer."
Neethan Shan, the Scarborough councillor McKelvie narrowly beat, said he accepts the results of the election but is interested in the new information that's coming to light.
Holyday, meanwhile, confirmed in an email that Haynes worked alongside him.
"I did not pay Kevin to canvas, and if I thought he was being paid he would not have been have been welcomed to join me," Holyday said in the email.
Grimes said he didn't recall Haynes working on the campaign.
"Had I known anyone was being paid, they would not have been a volunteer on my campaign," he said in an email.
CBC Toronto has asked Sussex if candidates were made aware that it was providing a canvasser.
Haynes also canvassed for candidates who didn't win, including Giorgio Mammoliti and Sam Moini.
What did Haynes actually do on the campaign?
Haynes has posted communications between himself and two Sussex employees online: Angela Drennan, the vice president of municipal affairs, and Lauren Goethel, who Sussex lists as an associate in its strategy and research area of municipal affairs.
Both, like a number of other Sussex employees, are registered to lobby city councillors on a wide range of issues from the budget to park space to waste collection (CBC Toronto emailed both directly, but received a response from Ryan).
In the documents shared by Haynes, Goethel sent him detailed canvassing schedules from her work account.
Drennan, in a long text message chain, sets Haynes's pay rate and also tells him how to connect with the councillors he's been working with — in one case sending him directly to a candidate's house.
It's unclear if Goethel and Drennan's organization work should have been disclosed.
Haynes, for his part, seems happy in messages to campaign for whomever he winds up being asked to work with.
He told CBC Toronto he'd never met most of the councillors in person before canvassing, and rarely bothered to review their platforms. "What do I say? How do you want me to sell it?" Haynes recalls asking them.
In the messages, Haynes comes across as keen and happy to do the work, and often shares his own political leanings with the lobbyist: "If it's up in the air, I lean right," he says in reference to one council race he didn't wind up working on.
Later, after a day of canvassing, he tells Drennan: "I would have done it for free but the money really helps."
Drennan confirmed in messages he would be paid after the campaign period — specifically at some point after Oct. 22, 2018.
Drennan also offered to be his reference and said she can connect him with a councillor who might hire him.
Haynes says he was hoping to land a job at Sussex toward the end of the election campaign, but no offer came. He said he felt like a "tool" they used for the campaign.
Sussex said Haynes was hired by a candidate — Jim Karygiannis — and "was not engaged further by Sussex."
Haynes's work with Karygiannins quickly ended and he released an explosive audio recording of the longtime Scarborough-Agincourt councillor saying bylaw infractions should be enforced only at homes where the residents didn't vote for him, a story first reported by the Toronto Star.
Karygiannis told the Star it was "tough talk" that was meant to be kept private.
Now, Haynes plans to run in a byelection to replace Karygiannis. Haynes said he's aware many people will see his decision to go public about his role in the last election as a campaign stunt, but said if anyone thinks that they shouldn't vote for him.
He said whether or not he wins, he just wants people to know how the game is played.
"If anything this hurts me," he said.
With files from Angelina King and Nick Boisvert