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‘You work for Stephen Harper – that’s not going to get me invites to the best cocktail parties on the north Toronto cocktail circuit,’ says Mr. Hamilton. ‘But that’s not my scene anyway.’ (Mark Blinch For The Globe and Mail)
‘You work for Stephen Harper – that’s not going to get me invites to the best cocktail parties on the north Toronto cocktail circuit,’ says Mr. Hamilton. ‘But that’s not my scene anyway.’ (Mark Blinch For The Globe and Mail)

The unlikely rise of Arthur Hamilton, the Conservative Party’s top lawyer Add to ...

It’s 10 a.m. on a sunny Sunday in April, and the Hamilton clan’s Jaguar pulls into the church parking lot. The twin seven-year-old boys race outside and have to be told to stop and look for cars.

Arthur Hamilton, a partner at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP, is a devout evangelical Christian. Faith keeps him grounded, he says. “If you’re a Christian, you believe that God owns your next breath,” he says. “And so, before you get all excited and call attention to yourself – ‘Oh look at me, look what I’ve accomplished’ – stay within yourself. The Arthur Hamilton that I know without the grace of God in his life is not a nice person. He’s not someone most people want to know.”

Inside the Unionville Alliance Church in Markham, north of Toronto, the lights are dim except for spotlights directed at the church’s in-house rock band. People clap and sway in time with the beat – though not Mr. Hamilton, standing stiffly in faded black jeans and a dark blazer. “I prefer the old hymns,” he confesses.

The service begins with some bad news: The church needs to raise about $21,000 to cover a complication with the cooling system. Pastor Kevin Rutledge asks the congregation to consider gifting any unexpected returns from tax season. Mr. Hamilton smiles.

“Everyone’s getting a refund thanks to Stephen Harper,” he whispers.

Which brings up the second almighty in Mr. Hamilton’s life. If you’re a casual follower of federal politics, the name Arthur Hamilton may sound familiar.

He is the Conservative Party of Canada’s official lawyer. As such, he has his fingerprints on the majority of Conservative scandals in recent memory, from the Helena Guergis and Rahim Jaffer affair, to Michael Sona and the robocall investigation, to the “in and out” spending controversy, and now the Mike Duffy case.

In the House of Commons, where statements are shielded from slander law, MPs have accused Mr. Hamilton of lying and participating in a Senate spending scandal cover-up to protect the Prime Minister. On more than one occasion, the Harper government has been asked whether it ought to report Mr. Hamilton to the law society.

Yet, for all the times his name is mentioned, the man himself is rarely seen. Mr. Hamilton, who turns 47 Saturday, has no interest in the party circuit. He avoids attention outside the courtroom, neither granting interviews nor appearing on television to explain his own cases – or to defend himself.

But recently, Mr. Hamilton agreed to speak with The Globe and Mail. Over the course of several weeks, he spent time with a reporter at work, at church, with his family, and on a tour of his childhood neighbourhood. He gave his blessing to friends, family, former classmates, neighbours and co-workers to participate in this story as well. The Globe also interviewed some of his detractors, adversaries and rivals.

The narrative that emerges is not only about Mr. Hamilton, but about the mindset of the Conservative Party and the people with access to Mr. Harper’s closely guarded circle of power.

Eyeing ‘the top of the pyramid’

Arthur Hamilton wasn’t always a Conservative. Life brought him there, he says.

In Scarborough, the scrappy Toronto borough where he grew up, his mother was a substitute teacher and his father a labourer. Both were strong union supporters and loyal NDP voters. He says his parents – mostly his father – felt that way because of the New Democrats’ commitment to the working class. As he got older, Arthur began to question how they could support a party that was so at odds with their church.

“Why was the NDP wasting time on social issues when [dad’s] union got a crummy contract? It was no longer the party of the working folk,” Mr. Hamilton said. “The party moved away from my dad.”

All three of the Hamilton siblings – Arthur is in the middle – identify as right-wingers. “We saw the great lie that was socialism,” he said.

At first, Mr. Hamilton’s political involvement was limited to heated dinner-table discussions. As a high-school student, he excelled in class but was focused on football. He played linebacker on the junior and senior teams, coached the girls’ flag team, and was president of the athletic council.

“He wasn’t the biggest guy in the world but … his smaller stature didn’t matter to him when he was lining up against bigger guys,” said his one-time teammate Scott Oakman. “That’s sort of my first memory, thinking, ‘Wow, this guy’s crazy. He’s going up against guys that are a lot bigger than him and it’s not fazing him a bit.’”

Away from the gridiron, Mr. Hamilton was a popular guy on weekends. He didn’t drink alcohol but was happy to drive home those who did. He still doesn’t drink and says a lot of people assume it’s because of his church. It’s more complicated than that.

When he was around 13 years old, Arthur started to hang out with kids outside his church community. At a creek near the school, he got drunk for the first time – and started fighting. One day, when he didn’t show up to youth group, a pastor at the church, Angel Valentin, went looking for him. He found Arthur at a pool hall where drugs were known to be sold. He smacked the young teen with a pool cue, then dragged him outside in front of his friends. “He was saying, ‘What are you doing? These are my friends!’” recalled Mr. Valentin, now 65.

It was around this time that Arthur says he hit a turning point. He got blackout drunk and something violent happened – he won’t go into detail. He hasn’t touched alcohol since.

After graduating from high school – as class valedictorian – he was recruited to play football for Greenville College, a small Christian school in Illinois. The program’s vision statement today includes a promise that players “will be a witness to the culture that it is possible to be fierce committed football players and play the game in a way that honours Jesus Christ.”

It was all Arthur had ever wanted – and it fell apart before it really began. “I don’t remember seeing the guy that hit me,” he said. “I know I got hit from behind. I just remember – have you ever been hurt where you know you’re really seriously hurt because it doesn’t hurt?”

His kneecap was shattered; he’d torn ligaments and severed tendons. Several surgeries later, it was clear he’d never play serious football again.

He moved back home, enrolled in night school (he needed another credit to apply to Canadian universities) and spent his days working at a propane company. He had no idea what he wanted to do. But then something clicked. Whenever there was an issue at the propane company, his boss asked Arthur to call the lawyer.

“It seemed whenever there was a big decision to be made it was, ‘Let’s get the lawyer involved,’” Mr. Hamilton recalls. “And it’s like, ‘Well, the contract’s in English. I can read it. I know what it says.’ ‘No, let’s get the lawyer involved.’ So I thought: ‘Well, if the lawyer’s the top of the pyramid, I wouldn’t mind being the top of the pyramid.’ ”

Mr. Hamilton graduated from the University of Toronto and applied to law school. At York University’s Osgoode Hall, he joined the campus’s small Conservative chapter and increasingly found himself at odds with other students and some of the faculty over his political views.

He found the culture “incredibly left-wing.” Mr. Hamilton was in law school at the same time that Bob Rae was premier – the first NDP premier in Ontario’s history. When labour issues came up in class, it was “Rah, rah unions. They do nothing wrong,” Mr. Hamilton said. It was the first time he felt people judging him for his right-wing beliefs. He eventually got used to it.

“There are lawyers in Toronto that think I’m an idiot because I take positions that they don’t care for,” Mr. Hamilton said. “I’m proud of my record. I’m proud of what I do. You work for Stephen Harper – that’s not going to get me invites to the best cocktail parties on the north Toronto cocktail circuit. But that’s not my scene anyway.”

After graduation, he landed a job articling with Cassels Brock, which has a reputation as an eat-what-you-kill work environment and happened to be full of Liberals. Still, the arrangement has not given rise to inter-office tension.

“If Arthur believes in it, I probably don’t. I mean, that’s a rough rule,” said the firm’s current chairman, David Peterson, a former Liberal premier of Ontario.

“That being said, I’m very close to him. And I have enormous affection for him. He worships at completely the wrong altars. I mean, anybody who likes Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh … ”

Mr. Hamilton made partner just six years into his time with the firm – in part, thanks to his one-time mentor at Cassels, Ian Blue.

When Mr. Hamilton was a first-year associate, Mr. Blue brought him on to a big energy-board case out east. Over the next few years, Mr. Blue taught him about cross-examination tactics, trial preparation techniques and client-management strategies. They became good friends. That has since changed.

Five years ago, Mr. Blue was approaching the firm’s mandatory retirement age. Exceptions can be made, but the general feeling was that it would be best if Mr. Blue moved on.

Some say Mr. Hamilton, who by then carried considerable influence at the firm, could have lobbied to save him. Instead, he avoided the issue. One source described it as a political decision – Mr. Hamilton chose not to waste capital on a foregone conclusion.

For his part, Mr. Hamilton said that what happened with Mr. Blue was very sad and that he still has incredible affection for him. In the end, Mr. Hamilton noted, Mr. Blue was not forced out but left on his own terms to take a job at Gardiner Roberts.

Mr. Blue, a Liberal, said he had nothing negative to say about Mr. Hamilton, apart from the fact he’s “a little bit conservative.”

Tearing apart a ‘dripping roast’

It’s not merely Mr. Hamilton’s political leanings that make him a fascinating figure in Conservative politics. It’s his devotion to this specific prime minister: Mr. Hamilton’s admiration for Stephen Harper seeps repeatedly into conversation, even as he refuses to discuss details of the work he performs for him.

“I can’t explain to you what a congenial, funny, warm person Stephen Harper is … He never misses a chance to ask how things are going [with the twins and Pam], and he cares about the answer,” he said one day while driving to his old high school.

Politically, Mr. Harper has found the sweet spot between economic success and responsible environmental policy, Mr. Hamilton said, and he’s made Canada relevant on the international stage. “I’ve never worked for another client like him. I’ve never seen another leader in Canada like him.”

Mr. Hamilton’s connection to Mr. Harper goes back to the beginning.

The year was 2003 and Canada’s two right-wing parties, the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative Party, were planning to merge. Some of the people involved held a meeting at Cassels to map out logistics. Mr. Hamilton, who had just made partner, sat in the back.

He was sure the move would be challenged in court. Months earlier, David Orchard and Peter MacKay were running against each other for the PC leadership. The former agreed to back the latter, provided Mr. MacKay promised not to pursue a merger with the Canadian Alliance, a party led by Mr. Harper. The others at the meeting asked Mr. Hamilton to do some pre-emptive research in case a merger were challenged. Mr. Hamilton turned to former colleague Laurie Livingstone for help.

At first, it was just an intellectual what-if exercise. But shortly after Ms. Livingstone drew up the memo, Mr. Orchard filed suit.

Mr. Hamilton and Ms. Livingstone were asked to fight it off. They won there, and then defended against another challenge from Sinclair Stevens, a former PC cabinet minister. It was on the wave of these wins that the now-united party asked the pair, with Mr. Hamilton as lead, to represent it at the Gomery Commission looking into the Liberal sponsorship scandal in 2004 and 2005.

The inquiry was Mr. Hamilton’s first big public performance and he impressed all the right people. He recalls that when he was writing his closing argument, he kept picturing a pack of ravenous Liberal dogs tearing apart a “dripping roast” of federal tax dollars. His co-counsel Ms. Livingstone pleaded with him to leave it out: It did nothing to advance the legal argument and would end up hijacking the news cycle, she argued.

Mr. Hamilton used it anyway. He worked the line into his final submission three different times, including right off the top.

“In the early part of the sponsorship scandal … it quickly became clear to the Liberal government that sponsorship and advertising was the proverbial ‘dripping roast’ that could not be resisted,” he said.

Just as Ms. Livingstone predicted, “dripping roast” scrolled across the bottom of Canadian TV screens that evening and appeared in newspapers the next day.

“It worked! And she knows it worked,” Mr. Hamilton said recently. “This was a very public inquiry.… It wasn’t there to advance the law.”

A ‘zealous advocate’

By 2006, Stephen Harper was Prime Minister. Once in power, the Conservatives put Mr. Hamilton on the Federal Bridge Corporation and, two years later, offered him the job as the party’s in-house lawyer. (He resigned from the bridge agency at that point).

Today, in addition to his practice at Cassels – he specializes in commercial litigation, anti-corruption law and regulatory issues – Mr. Hamilton is the Conservative Party of Canada’s front line of defence. He approves attack ads before they go out the door and advises on election expenses. He’s brought in on media-sensitive files, and assists Conservative MPs who find themselves in legal trouble.

One of the most public examples of this is the Rahim Jaffer and Helena Guergis debacle from 2010.

Ms. Guergis was serving as minister of state for the status of women when it emerged that her husband, Mr. Jaffer, a former Conservative MP, was caught up in a salacious scandal that allegedly involved influence peddling, cocaine and high-priced prostitutes. It was alleged that Mr. Jaffer, using resources from his wife’s office, promised access to federal green infrastructure funding.

According to a statement of claim subsequently filed by Ms. Guergis, the embattled minister contacted Mr. Hamilton at the urging of senior officials within the party. She claims he was “identified as a member of the party and a lawyer who could be trusted.” She forwarded confidential documents to him and talked about the “personal stress” she was under. Mr. Hamilton passed on what he learned to the Prime Minister and some senior staff. Mr. Harper promptly removed Ms. Guergis from cabinet and she lost her seat in the next election.

She is now suing Mr. Hamilton, and claims he violated his duty to her and defamed her character. Ms. Guergis alleges that Mr. Hamilton never made it clear that his role with the party would limit his “obligations” to her case. Mr. Hamilton is limited in what he can say, given that the lawsuit is ongoing, but broadly speaking he denied the allegations.

As lawyer for the party, he frequently gives advice to those involved with it. This, he explains, is how he ended up cutting Mike Duffy a cheque for $13,560.

In the early stages of the Senate spending scandal, Mr. Duffy went to the party for legal advice, but Mr. Hamilton was tied up with a big oil case at Cassels, he said. “When this happens, we don’t want people to be without legal counsel. So … in those circumstances, the fund will, on occasion, reimburse the caucus member so they’re not out of pocket for legals that I could have provided,” Mr. Hamilton said.

Questions about whom Mr. Hamilton was actually working for came up again during the robocall scandal. Just hours after news broke that a young political staffer, Michael Sona, was under investigation for supposedly masterminding the plan to prevent some voters in Guelph, Ont., from casting a ballot in the 2011 election, Mr. Sona got a call from the party’s lawyer.

“He wanted to ask me first off if I was responsible for the situation. He wanted to know some specific things about the campaign in Guelph,” Mr. Sona told CBC’s Power & Politics in October, 2012.

Mr. Sona declined to be interviewed for this story, but he has told people that he was confused, after that call, whether Mr. Hamilton was friend or foe.

People who knew Mr. Sona began coming forward to headquarters, alleging that they’d heard him bragging about the scheme. These young staffers were put in touch with Mr. Hamilton, who interviewed them, then accompanied them to interviews with Elections Canada investigators. The ethics around this arrangement have given some people pause.

“Arthur Hamilton marched six Conservative staffers into Elections Canada and, surprise, they all had the same far-fetched story: One person acting alone was responsible for sophisticated election fraud across the country,” Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett said in the House of Commons.

Mitchell Messom, who used to work with Mr. Sona on the Hill and eventually gave testimony against him, said any suggestion that Mr. Hamilton put words in their mouths is wrong. When it came time to speak with the Elections Canada investigators, Mr. Messom said he met the Conservative lawyer in the building’s lobby.

“He basically said, ‘Just state the truth. There’s no need to embellish anything or anything like that. Just say what you can remember,’” Mr. Messom said.

For the record, Mr. Hamilton said he has never and would never break the law or his ethical code for a client – any client.

The Globe spoke with dozens of people connected to Mr. Hamilton, including current and former colleagues, classmates, friends, enemies, family members and political acquaintances. They describe a man who will do what it takes to win – without crossing the line.

“He’d never say to lie. He might say, ‘Don’t mention that unless you’re asked.’ But he wouldn’t say to lie,” said one individual who has had to deal with Mr. Hamilton on a legal issue involving the party.

Ms. Livingstone, now a lawyer with Alberta’s law society, said when she worked with Mr. Hamilton at Cassels, she heard him say no to clients asking him to do something that bordered on illegal.

“I’ve been in a conference call when clients are yelling at him. ‘I’m telling you just to do it!’ [And he’ll reply:] ‘I can’t accept that instruction. But here’s the three legitimate ways to get to the result you want,’” she said. “I think some people in politics and the media have tried to portray him as some sort of a villain. And it’s just so far from who he is. He’s a zealous advocate. He serves his clients well. But he’s a deeply honourable, good guy.”

A ‘woodchipper’ in court

For Frank Graves, who has been on the receiving end of Mr. Hamilton’s zeal, it’s difficult to reconcile the “honourable, good guy” with the lawyer who eviscerated him in court.

In 2012, Mr. Graves, the president of EKOS Research, received a call from the legal team of the Council of Canadians, a left-leaning activist group, asking him to act as an expert witness. The group was challenging the 2011 general-election results in six closely contested races where Conservatives had won (there were initially seven, but one was dropped), and where residents reported receiving phone calls directing them to incorrect polling stations.

Mr. Graves accepted, thinking it sounded like an interesting challenge. Instead, he said the experience nearly destroyed his business.

“I got my head caught in the woodchipper that is Arthur Hamilton,” he said recently.

Part of Mr. Graves’s responsibility in the case was to determine through polling whether the six ridings in question had experienced “voter-suppression techniques” – automated calls diverting voters to bogus polling stations – and what, if any, impact they had.

The EKOS survey found wide evidence that robocalling had occurred in these electoral districts and that non-Conservatives were significantly more likely to be targeted, said Mr. Graves. Determining the effect on the election was more difficult. He estimates that somewhere between 1 and 3 per cent of voters who would have voted for a non-Conservative candidate didn’t vote as a result of the misinformation.

“I was prepared to be challenged on methodology. The part that was really hard to deal with were these claims that I was a liar, that I was incompetent, that I was biased,” Mr. Graves said.

Mr. Hamilton went after Mr. Graves for having previously donated to the Liberal Party. And when the lawyer discovered that his courtroom opponents had presented Mr. Graves as having a PhD – when in fact he completed only some PhD work – Mr. Hamilton branded him as a liar, even after it was determined that a clerical error at the law firm was responsible, not Mr. Graves. For Mr. Hamilton, regardless of where the problem arose, it was Mr. Graves’s job to make sure his qualifications were presented accurately.

As far as Mr. Graves is concerned, Mr. Hamilton crossed a line – perhaps not a legal threshold, but an ethical one. “I’m not inside his head and I’m not sure I ever want to be there, [but] I don’t think he really thought I was falsifying my academic credentials. … It was clear why the error had occurred. It was cleared up immediately, yet he persisted,” Mr. Graves said.

Mr. Hamilton won the case, but even while ruling in his favour, the judge admonished him for his tactics. Justice Richard Mosley called the defence strategy “trench warfare” and said Mr. Hamilton’s “concerted attack on Mr. Graves’s character” was “unfair.”

Asked if he has any regrets about how he handled himself, Mr. Hamilton appeared stunned at the question. “Are you kidding me?” he scoffed. “He’s lucky I stopped when I did. He’s presenting himself as an expert witness.”

Controversial though he may be, Mr. Hamilton has come a long way from his modest roots in Scarborough. Last year, at his wife’s urging, he moved his brood into a stately, $2-million, brick-and-stone home in Toronto’s Leaside neighbourhood. He seems to feel awkward about his current lifestyle – explaining, without being asked, that he bought the Jaguar only because his old car was so beat up that some of his Cassels colleagues suggested it looked bad in front of clients.

As for his reputation, he says he doesn’t care what people say about him in the shadowy corners of the nation’s capital. But it does get to his wife. “It’s why I’ll never run,” he said. “She doesn’t like seeing my name in the paper because the blogs that ultimately spawn underneath are pretty ugly.”

His name may never appear on a ballot, but Mr. Hamilton says he’ll continue to be involved with the Conservative Party – even when his days as its lawyer are over, whenever that may be.

“I’m here at the pleasure of the Prime Minister,” he said. “So to renounce my statement from earlier this day: He owns my next breath.”

Robyn Doolittle is an investigative reporter with The Globe and Mail.

 

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