The political machine behind the man who is now Speaker of the House of Commons opened its wallet for the Guelph Conservative campaign currently under scrutiny by Election Canada’s robo-calls probe, records at the watchdog agency show.
Less than two weeks before the 2011 election, Andrew Scheer’s Regina-Qu’Appelle riding association in Saskatchewan transferred $3,000 to the Guelph Conservative campaign for candidate Marty Burke.
Elections Canada records suggest this was the only Conservative riding association outside Guelph to transfer cash to Mr. Burke’s campaign during the writ period.
Mr. Scheer has served as Conservative MP for the Saskatchewan riding of Regina-Qu’Appelle since 2004. It was only after the 2011 ballot that he was elected Speaker of the House of Commons, which makes him president and referee of the Chamber.
He has recently presided over sharp exchanges in Question Period debates that have been dominated by the robo-calls affair
Elections Canada has confirmed in court filings that it’s investigating fraudulent and misdirecting calls to voters in Guelph – ones that it alleges were conducted by a political operative hiding behind the alias “Pierre Poutine” and connected to the local Conservative campaign.
Mr. Scheer’s office referred questions about the $3,000 to the Conservative electoral district association for Regina-Qu’Appelle.
The Speaker’s spokeswoman said Mr. Scheer, who sits on the board of his Saskatchewan riding association, wanted to help out Mr. Burke.
“He says that the candidate [Burke]was originally from Regina. His mother still lives in the riding. He has volunteered for Scheer before,” Heather Bradley said.
Joan Baylis, the chief financial officer for the Saskatchewan Conservative riding association, said Guelph was “short of money” when it came looking for help.
She said Regina-Qu’Appelle’s electoral district association had itself received help in the past from other riding associations and wanted to “give back.”
Ms. Baylis said Regina-Qu’Appelle had made it known that it had cash on hand and “that if any ridings came to us in financial difficulty, then because we had some surplus money we would ... help them out.”
She said that the Saskatchewan riding association gave cash both to Guelph and to Tories in Mississauga East-Cooksville.
“They were the only two camps that asked us if we could assist them during their election because of their financial difficulties.”
Ms. Baylis said she’s not sure how Guelph used the cash. “We never asked. How would we know what they needed it for? They may need more advertising, more brochures. We never specified and we never asked.”
She said the only criteria was that spending meet Elections Canada rules.
Ms. Baylis said she wrote a cheque for Guelph on April 21. The Burke campaign records filed with Elections Canada show it as received April 29, three days before the May 2 ballot.
She said her riding association has recorded it as a “forgivable loan” but one it never expects to be paid back.
Elections Canada states that riding associations belonging to the same political party have the ability to transfer funds among themselves. There is no maximum transfer in place, as the Elections Act already limits the contributions that individual Canadians can make to any political party, including its riding associations, in a given year.
Mr. Scheer has intervened at times in Question Period to ensure that discussions focus on the government’s response to the controversy, and not partisan matters.
For example, on March 8, the Speaker stepped in after NDP MP Chris Charlton quizzed Conservative MPs about some of their campaign spending on call centres.
“I would like to remind members that their questions have to touch on the administrative responsibilities of government, not political financing,” Mr. Scheer said as he enforced parliamentary rules.
NDP MP Pat Martin had no comment about the $3,000 transfer to the Guelph campaign, noting Mr. Scheer was not Speaker at the time.
However, Mr. Martin said he is concerned about Mr. Scheer’s recent interventions in the Commons to block some questions on robo-calls.
“This speaks to the integrity of our parliamentary democracy, and I can’t imagine anything more appropriate to be discussed in the House of Commons,” Mr. Martin said, explaining that the opposition is exploring potential violations of the Elections Act.
“Andrew’s going to have to conduct himself very carefully as this moves forward to avoid any criticism of bias or prejudice.”
Ms. Bradley, with Mr. Scheer’s office, said the Speaker is very careful to rule judiciously.
“When the Speaker presides over Question Period his responsibility is to ensure that questions asked are within the administrative responsibility of the government. This is what Speaker Scheer will continue to do.”
“Once one is elected Speaker, one sets aside all partisan activity,” Ms. Bradley said.
“All speakers’ rulings are based in parliamentary precedence and practice.”
Separately on Tuesday, Mr. Burke said publicly that he doesn’t believe anyone from his campaign team is behind the misdirecting robo-calls scheme.
In an e-mail to the Guelph Tribune, the former Guelph Conservative candidate said he doesn’t know who is responsible but would be “shocked” if the Elections Canada probe traces the automated calls that directed Guelph residents to the wrong polling station on voting day to his campaign team.
“I have absolutely no knowledge of who made such calls or how and why they were made,” Mr. Burke said in his first public comments about the investigation. “I do not believe there is any connection between these calls and any member of our hard-working, dedicated campaign team. I would be shocked to find out otherwise.”
Elections Canada has received 700 specific complaints about misleading calls since reports of its Guelph probe surfaced last month. Its investigation has focused on the riding of Guelph and the local Conservative campaign, but data gathered by media and opposition parties show voters elsewhere also received calls directing them to the wrong polling station in their communities.
With a report from Renata D’Aliesio
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