Tory MP's campaign alleges Elections Canada 'vendetta'

An official from Conservative MP Jeff Watson's 2011 campaign says Elections Canada has a 'vendetta' against the Conservative Party, CBC News has learned, as Watson joins a list of Conservative MPs fighting the agency in court.

Conservative MP Jeff Watson fighting agency in court over cost of signs, $5,765 phone bill

An official from Conservative MP Jeff Watson's election campaign says Elections Canada has a 'vendetta' against the Conservative Party. Watson is among a growing list of Conservative MPs fighting the agency in court, CBC News has learned. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

An official from Conservative MP Jeff Watson's 2011 campaign says Elections Canada has a 'vendetta' against the Conservative Party, CBC News has learned, as Watson joins a list of Conservative MPs fighting the agency in court.

The MP for Essex, Ont., is butting heads with the agency over the cost of signs used in his election campaign — a cost which would help put him almost $11,000 over his 2011 campaign spending limit.

Like Conservative MPs Shelly Glover and James Bezan, Watson is going to court to argue that the agency should allow incumbents to write down some of the cost of their campaign signs if they were used in previous elections. And, like Glover and Bezan, Watson has been warned he could lose his ability to sit and vote in the House of Commons if he doesn't comply with the agency's request to correct his elections spending file.

Elections Canada maintains that the full cost must be counted so that it's fair to new candidates, who don't have the benefit of previously used signs.

Watson didn't immediately respond to requests for comment made to his Parliament Hill and constituency offices or to his email address.

'Pursuing a vendetta'

Garth Little, Watson's official agent and the person responsible for overseeing spending in his campaign, details in court documents a series of letters and phone calls in which the agency nearly de-registered the Essex Conservative riding association over late financial filings.

In his affidavit, Little said he was discussing the problem with the president of the riding association.

"He informed me and I do verily believe that Elections Canada was pursuing a vendetta against the Conservative Party of Canada due to its having lost a legal battle with the party and that other EDAs [riding associations] across the country were experiencing similar difficulties."

Backed by letters between him and Elections Canada, Little said the agency threatened several times to de-register the association, which would have meant it couldn't fundraise, even after a representative confirmed to Little that the paperwork was in order.

Riding associations must file financial records with Elections Canada every year to keep their status. Those filings are separate from the ones filed by candidates.

Records retrieved from Watson's public file at Elections Canada show the campaign is still locked in a battle with the agency over its 2011 filing.

Tried to remove $5,765 unpaid phone bill

Watson's campaign was told early last month that it had overspent by $10,799.94, partly because Elections Canada changed the value of signs used in the election.

It's not clear how Little assessed the value of the signs. In a July 2012 letter to Elections Canada, he said the small signs used by the campaign were worth $1 each and the large signs $10.

Elections Canada recorded the commercial value at $6.77 for the small signs and $39.55 for the large ones, for a difference of $8,612.43.

Little then tried to change the filing to remove a $5,765.71 phone bill that the campaign never paid.

In an earlier update, Little had said he wasn't aware of the phone bill, and added it to the campaign's tally in October 2012.

After Elections Canada told Little the campaign had gone over its limit, Little tried to revoke the change that added the phone bill to remove the $5,765.71 from the campaign's spending records.

An official with the agency responded that it didn't matter whether the campaign had paid the bill or not, since the services were used.

"All election expenses, whether paid or unpaid, must be reported in the candidate's electoral campaign return and count towards determining whether a campaign has exceeded its election expense limit."

In the court records, Little describes his conversation with a man working for the collection agency on behalf of the phone company.

"I ... informed him of the statutory provisions of the Canada Elections Act regarding payment of campaign expenses within [four] months of the close of the campaign. I told him it was very unlikely this would ever be paid," Little said in his affidavit.

"I immediately sent a fax to [the collection agent] telling him to cease and desist bothering Mr. Watson's staff and informing him that his collection was statute-barred, enclosing the relevant section of the Canada Elections Act."

'Highly suspect'

In a letter to an Elections Canada official, Little said the agency should deny any attempt by the phone company to collect what it's owed.

"I believe it should be denied as there is no excuse for them not being able to locate me for 16 months."

Little is asking the court to step in so the campaign doesn't have to comply with the changes Elections Canada has requested to the file. Without the changes, the campaign would be about $5,000 under the $94,038.71 limit.

"I believe that the entire course of conduct of Elections Canada vis-a-vis the Essex Conservative Association from 2009 to the present makes these allegations highly suspect and questionable in the extreme," Little said.

Glover and Bezan are facing sanctions by the House Speaker over their battles with Elections Canada. The penalty for not making corrections demanded by the agency includes not being able to sit or vote in the House.

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand issued the same threat to Watson on May 30, 2013, giving him a July 5 deadline.

The court case won't be heard until July 16, but Speaker Andrew Scheer has said he won't move on Glover and Bezan until their court actions are resolved.