Ontario PC fundraising letters labelled 'invoice' blasted as a 'scam' as calls mount for investigation
Elections Ontario says it doesn't regulate contents of fundraising letters
An Ontario woman says she was incensed after receiving a fundraising letter from the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario that looks like an invoice — something opposition parties are already criticizing as a "scam."
By Wednesday afternoon, the Ontario NDP had filed a complaint with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. Ontario Provincial Police, meanwhile, said in a statement investigators are aware of the letters and will evaluate whether or not the situation warrants a criminal investigation.
Part of the letter is labelled "invoice" and looks like a bill to be sent to the Ontario PCs in Toronto. The only line item says "Election Readiness Fund" and lists a total of $300, then lower down the page states there's a "balance due." The word donation does appear, but only at the bottom of the page. You can see the "invoice" section of the letter at the bottom of this story.
The letter includes two pages. The first is a standard letter explaining the need for the PCs to fundraise ahead of next year's election, but the second is the part that looks like an invoice. Part of the letter says "Please pay the enclosed invoice to send Doug Ford the message that we've got his back."
Veronica Doyon, who lives in North Bay, Ont., shared an image of the letter on Reddit on Tuesday where many raised concerns it could dupe people, particularly vulnerable seniors, into thinking they owed the party money.
"It just made me angry," Doyon told CBC News. "Honestly, I couldn't believe the gall of whoever put this together to try and tell me I owed them money while at the same time trying to ask me to voluntarily donate it."
It's unclear who the PC party targeted with the letters and how many it sent out. CBC News has contacted the party but has not received a response at this time. The premier's office, meanwhile, directed questions to the party.
Doyon, who has taken over her family home, said she believes she received the letter because her mother previously supported the party.
Gregory Gies, from Elginburg, Ont., received the same letter, but his asked for $800. He said he donated to the party over a decade ago. CBC News has also seen an image of a letter seeking $1,000.
He said this move by the PCs "pushes the bounds of ethics [and] borders on fraud" and said he's disappointed to see what he called U.S. Republican-style fundraising apparently influence Canadian politics.
Gies said he's concerned about how the letters may affect the public's trust in the system.
"That type of thing then starts to destroy faith in the entire political process in our institutions and that's dangerous."
All 3 opposition parties file complaints
On Wednesday morning, as more social media users posted similar pictures, the Ontario Liberal party issued a news release calling for an immediate investigation by Elections Ontario and the anti-fraud branch of the Ontario Provincial Police.
The party blasted the letters as a "scam."
"The misleading document … is similar to those used in 'false billing scams' that aim to defraud vulnerable individuals. Scamming donors is straight out of the Donald Trump playbook," the Liberals said in a news release.
The NDP, meanwhile, sent a letter to the province's chief electoral office.
"It is deeply concerning that the Premier would authorize a fundraising letter created to deliberately confuse or alarm vulnerable individuals into a donation to his campaign," wrote Essex MPP Taras Natyshak.
Toronto NDP MPP Jill Andrew went further on Twitter, saying she had "only disgust" for the move that could affect people on fixed incomes or dealing with other issues.
These ppl can barely afford to keep a roof over their head, or fresh food on their table. A $300 "invoice" can make or break them. <br><br>PCs knew EXACTLY what they were doing & did it anyway. Marketing is one thing. This is SCAMMING in its truest form.<br><br>I am w/o words. Only disgust.—@JILLSLASTWORD
An NDP spokesperson said the matter was referred to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre after Elections Ontario informed the party the contents of the letter weren't in its purview, which the organization told CBC News as well.
The Green party also asked Elections Ontario to investigate and also alerted provincial police.
"These Conservative fundraising letters are a misleading tactic rooted in trickery to raise money," said party leader Mike Schreiner in a statement.
At least one member of the public, Eric Wolinsky, also submitted a complaint to Elections Ontario. He told CBC News by phone that while he didn't get a letter himself, he views them as "fraud-based fundraising" and said he believes many people will fall for it.
Elections Ontario doesn't regulate content of political advertising
While there's been sharp online backlash to the fundraiser, it's unclear at this time if the letters violate any election rules.
Elections Ontario wouldn't say if it's investigating the letters, but a spokesperson suggested the content of fundraisers aren't in its purview.
"Elections Ontario regulates provincial elections in Ontario under the Election Act and the Election Finances Act. Neither Act regulates the content of campaign or fundraising materials, or the content of political advertising," said spokesperson Eleni Armenakis in an email to CBC News.
Lawyer Jack Siegel, an expert on election law with the firm Blaney McMurtry LLP, said he's seen similar things happen, but only outside of the political world.
He said he doesn't believe the fundraising letters are criminal in nature and doesn't think the Election Finances Act would cover it, either. He said it was a safe bet this incident is uncharted territory.
"To my mind it's unethical, but I don't know that there's a specific law that's been written to cover it. Probably because nobody ever anticipated that a political party would ever do such a thing."
Ontario's next election is set for June of 2022.
With files from Angelina King