Conservative MPs seek $355K in legal costs in election robocalls case

Seven Conservative MPs have submitted a combined bill of $355,907 for costs they want paid by a handful of voters who received misleading robocalls during the last general election, and had challenged them in court.

7 MPs want voters who challeged them in court to pay their bills

Voters, backed by the Council of Canadians, who challenged 2011 election victories are being billed $355,000 by Conservative MPs, clockwise from top-left, Kelly Block, John Duncan, Jay Aspin, Joyce Bateman, Joe Daniel, Lawrence Toet and Ryan Leef. The challenge against Daniel was dropped Oct. 23. (Conservative.ca/CBC)

Seven Conservative MPs have submitted a combined bill of $355,907 for costs they want paid by a handful of voters who received misleading robocalls during the last general election, and had challenged them in court. 

The amount to fight the challenge to overturn the results in their ridings, the politicians say, is only "a small fraction of the actual costs" spent on the proceedings.

The voters, who were the applicants in the case, were supported by the Council of Canadians, which agreed to cover costs by fundraising. The council describes itself as a citizens' organization advocating for social justice, which receives no corporate or government funding.

The voters testified they all had received automated calls purporting to be from Elections Canada telling them their polling station had been moved to another location. They had either already voted or realized the calls were fraudulent, but nonetheless argued their right to vote had been tampered with.

In May, Federal Court Judge Richard Mosley threw out the voters' case because it couldn't be proven that the results of the election had been affected by the robocalls. He did, however, find there had been a "concerted campaign" of electoral fraud conducted by persons who had access to a database of voter information.

Mosley found the most likely source of the database was the voter identification system owned by the Conservative Party. But he found no evidence of fraud by any of the Conservative MPs or by the party. 

$355,000 an 'outrageous amount'

On Monday, a spokesperson for the Council of Canadians called the $355,000 tab "an outrageous amount," adding the council has not been able yet to raise the "already discounted" fees the voters incurred in the legal battle, let alone the MPs' costs.

In his ruling, Justice Mosley had plenty to say about costs in the case, particularly costs run up due to what he called "trench warfare" waged by the MPs. He accused the MPs of trying to "block these proceedings by any means" and ordered them to pay the costs of many motions they introduced that ended up delaying the proceedings.

The voters, he said, "sought to achieve and hold the high ground." Although the voters won't be individually liable for any costs, because the Council of Canadians will pay the bill, Mosely did point out in his ruling that the council is not a charity, and donors don't get any tax credit for their contributions.

Donors to political parties, he said, can be reimbursed for up to 75 per cent of their donation by taxpayers, although the amount they can give is limited. He observed that it was "likely" the Conservative MPs' legal fees would be paid by their party.

He invited the MPs to submit what he called "a modest fixed amount" of the basic costs of fighting the case. The applicants in the case have 15 days to respond, and then Mosley will issue a final decision.

The Canada Elections Act allows for any voter who suspects electoral fraud to contest the results of an election. But the financial toll of mounting a legal challenge can be hefty. When former Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj unsuccessfully contested the 2011 results of the Toronto riding of Etobicoke Centre, he ended up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money in legal costs.

Elections Canada is still investigating hundreds of complaints of robocalls or real calls that directed voters to the wrong polling station in over 240 of Canada's 308 ridings in the last federal election.