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Conservative Party must be transparent about fraudulent memberships or it will ‘undercut credibility of outcome,’ says Kent

By Abbas Rana      

'Nothing wrong will happen under my watch,' Conservative Party's Dustin Van Vugt tells Conservative MP Bob Saroya.

Conservative Party leadership candidates Kevin O'Leary and Maxime Bernier. Mr. Bernier shook up the Conservative Party leadership contest two weeks ago by issuing a public statement saying back room organizers are signing up new members in violation of the party membership rules. Within a day, the party cancelled 1,351 memberships. The Hill Times photographs by Jake Wright
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The Conservative Party has to be transparent to Canadians and to its more than 100,000 members about the process it’s undertaking to scrub fraudulent memberships from the party list or it will undermine the outcome of the leadership race, says Conservative MP Peter Kent.

“That will undercut the credibility of the outcome. It is incumbent on the party to not only complete a very thorough and due diligence, but to share the process and provide credible guarantees that all is above board and acceptable,” Mr. Kent (Thornhill, Ont.) told The Hill Times last week.

Mr. Kent, who is supporting Conservative MP Michael Chong’s (Wellington-Halton-Hills, Ont.) campaign, said he’s not speaking up as Chong supporter, but as a Conservative Party member. Moreover, Mr. Kent said  the party should publicly disclose its findings and explain the steps it took to scrub the fraudulent memberships.

Meanwhile, rookie Conservative MP Bob Saroya (Markham-Unionville, Ont.), who is supporting Conservative MP Andrew Scheer’s (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) leadership campaign, said Conservative Party executive director Dustin Van Vugt told him in a phone conversation last week that the party is reviewing the entire party membership list to ensure that all members who vote in the leadership contest are legitimate.

Mr. Saroya said he spoke to Mr. Van Vugt in his capacity as a concerned member of the Conservative caucus and not as a supporter of the Scheer campaign. Mr. Saroya said Mr. Van Vugt told him that “nothing wrong will happen under my watch,” he said.

“He’s looking into every single file riding by riding to make sure everything is done by the book,” Mr. Saroya told The Hill Times. “He means what he’s saying.”

Rookie Conservative MP Bob Saroya says the Conservative Party is reviewing the entire party membership list to weed out fraudulent ones. Photograph courtesy of Bob Saroya

“’I can promise you that my team is working very hard and nothing wrong will happen under my watch,’” Mr. Saroya said Mr. Van Vugt told him. The Markham MP told The Hill Times that he’s satisfied the party is doing everything it can protect the integrity of the leadership contest.

In an emailed response to The Hill Times, Conservative Party spokesman Cory Hann said the party is making every effort to make the leadership campaign a fair contest. He did not get into details, but said the No. 1 priority for the party is to ensure that only legitimate members stay on the membership list.

“We regularly review memberships to ensure they’re within our rules, and have a variety of protective measures at our disposal to ensure that,” said Mr. Hann. “Our leadership race is, and will continue to be, a fair contest, and we will take every necessary step to keep it that way. Members can be confident that the party’s number one priority through this election is to maintain the integrity of our leadership race.”

The Conservative Party currently has more than 100,000 members.

The deadline to sign up new members for the May 27 leadership convention is Tuesday, March 28.

There are 14 candidates running for the Conservative Party’s leadership, including nine current MPs, three former MPs and two businessmen. The Conservative MPs are: Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.), Kellie Leitch (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.), Maxime Bernier (Beauce, Que.), Deepak Obhrai (Calgary Forest Lawn, Ont.), Mr. Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.), Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.), Steven Blaney (Bellechasse -Les Etchemins -Lévis, Que.) Lisa Raitt (Milton, Ont.), and Mr. Trost. Former Conservative MPs Pierre Lemieux, Chris Alexander and Andrew Saxton are also running for the party’s top job. The other two candidates include businessman and Reality TV star and businessman Kevin O’Leary and businessman Rick Peterson.

Mr. O’Leary launched a political grenade in the Conservative leadership campaign two weeks ago when he stated that “backroom organizers” are “committing widespread vote rigging” by signing up new members using pre-paid credit cards, a violation of the party rules. The Conservative Party membership rules require that only personal credit cards or personal cheques can be used to buy memberships.

“It has been brought to my campaign’s attention that there are backroom organizers who are committing wide-spread vote rigging and potentially breaking our electoral and financing laws to try to buy a Leadership victory,” declared Mr. O’Leary in his statement. “In an attempt to protect against this kind of fraud, the party has strict leadership rules in place requiring all memberships to be purchased by individuals using either personal cheques or personal credit cards. However, we have been informed that to get around these rules, campaign activists are using untraceable prepaid credit cards to sign up fake members, possibly without these individuals even knowing about it. Beyond the legalities of this, it is completely immoral, and extremely unfair to the tens of thousands of real Party members that will have the impact of their votes weakened.”

Mr. O’Leary did not accuse any specific campaign in his statement, but anonymous sources told Huffington Post Canada and The Globe and Mail that Mr. Bernier’s campaign was the target of the O’Leary statement. A few days later, the Bernier campaign provided an affidavit to The Globe and Mail accusing an O’Leary campaign organizer of attempting to buy memberships for potential new party members. They, however, did not publicly produce any proof. Instead, the Bernier campaign said they will not discuss the issue in the media anymore and will provide the proof only to the party office.

Meanwhile, The Hill Times reported last week that Conservative MP Alex Nuttall (Barrie-Springwater-Oro Medonte, Ont.), who is the national membership chair for the Bernier campaign, allegedly fraudulently signed up party members in 2010 in his unsuccessful bid for the provincial PC party nomination in Barrie, Ont. The local PC nomination committee at the time recommended to the party that Mr. Nuttall be disqualified from the contest. Mr. Nuttall denied the allegations at that time and the party after reviewing the complaints allowed the then-municipal councillor to continue his candidacy.

Within a day of Mr. O’Leary’s public statement on fraudulent memberships, the Conservative Party cancelled 1,351 memberships that had been signed up from two IP addresses with payments made using pre-paid credit cards. The party said it was impossible to pinpoint to any specific campaign. Last week, the party declined to say if it was reviewing memberships before Mr. O’Leary went public with his complaint or if the review started after the statement.

“The party regularly reviews memberships to ensure they are within our rules,” Mr. Hann wrote to The Hill Times but did not provide any specifics. “We thank the EDA volunteers and leadership campaign representatives that alerted us to the ineligible memberships.”

Conservative MP Peter Kent said the Conservative Party should say publicly what it has done to ensure that only legitimate party members will vote in the leadership contest. The Hill Times photography by Jake Wright

Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu (Sarnia-Lambton, Ont.), meanwhile, said she’s satisfied with the party’s efforts to scrutinize memberships. But she said she wants an explanation from the party on a different subject related to the leadership contest, one she read about in The Hill Times earlier this month. The Hill Times reported that although the leadership contest has 14 candidates, the party’s ballot allows members to rank only 10 candidates, not 14.

Ms. Gladu said the party never communicated this to the caucus.

“The party is doing their due diligence [on memberships] and I’m pleased that they did it expeditiously,” said Ms. Gladu, adding that she wants to get more details from the party on why it never communicated to caucus about allowing party members to make 10 choices on the ballot paper and not 14.

“We had no communication to caucus. That would be a concern of mine, if it’s a preferred ranked ballot, one would expect that you would have a system that would be able to deal with that.”

Meanwhile, Conservative Party insider Tim Powers said it’s not unusual for major political parties to receive complaints about signing up people in violation of party rules. He said his guess is organizers on the ground resort to these measures because they think they can convince the new members at some point to vote in favour of the candidate these organizers are supporting.

“Or they may have other nefarious means they’re going to choose to exercise to get those votes counted for whomever they’re supporting. There’s always funny, weird stuff that happens on the ground organizing by people who try to get what I will politely describe as creative in the way in which they bring people on board,” said Mr. Powers.

Meanwhile, in a recent analysis, CBC’s Eric Grenier said that, based on his Conservative Leadership Index, Mr. Bernier, Mr. O’Leary and Mr. Scheer would be the three top contenders on the first ballot. The index is an estimate of where the candidates would end up on the first ballot of the vote, if that vote had occurred today. Mr. Grenier calculated the index using the average results of four different metrics: endorsement points, fundraising, contributors, and polls. Mr. Bernier led the pack last week, according to Mr. Grenier’s index, with 20.1 points, followed by Mr. O’Leary with 18.5 points. Mr. Scheer scored 13.3 and Mr. O’Toole 9.9 points

arana@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times 

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