The Harper government says election financing charges against four top Conservative Party officials are an "administrative" matter, an "accounting dispute" and a "debate."
The office of the federal Director of Public Prosecutions has another phrase: "illegal activity."
The Harper government mounted a single-minded defence Monday against the politically damaging charges, playing down the allegations at the same time it heralded a Federal Court ruling in a civil suit that Conservatives say exonerates the party.
The charges in the so-called in-and-out scheme relate to the 2006 election when Stephen Harper's Conservatives first came to power.
Elections Canada alleges the scheme allowed the party to exceed its campaign spending limit by more than $1-million while enabling 67 individual candidates to reap 60 per cent refunds from the public purse on spending they did not incur.
Pierre Poilievre, Mr. Harper's parliamentary secretary, called the charges "administrative" half a dozen times during Monday's question period, while referring to an accounting dispute three times and a "debate" with Elections Canada four times.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, meanwhile, repeatedly referred to "criminal charges."
A spokesman for the Director of Public Prosecutions said the charges relate to allegations of "illegal activity."
The four Conservative Party officials, Dan Brien said, "are not charged under the Criminal Code. They are Elections Act offences that are alleged. It's still illegal activity."
"These are serious charges, but not criminal" because they're not under the Criminal Code, Mr. Brien said.
Two Conservative senators, Irving Gerstein and Doug Finley, have been charged, along with party officials Mike Donison and Susan Kehoe and the Conservative party itself. Mr. Gerstein runs the Conservative Fund Canada, the party's hugely successfully fundraising machine, while Mr. Finley has been Mr. Harper's campaign field general in the past two elections.
Depending on the charge, the penalties involved range from a year in prison, a $2,000 fine, or both, or up to a $25,000 fine. Upon sentencing, provisions in the Elections Act also permit a judge to impose additional penalties, including deregistering the party or liquidating assets.
While the case was brought by elections commissioner William Corbett, it was up to the public prosecutor to determine if the charges should go forward.
"The decision-to-prosecute test is very simple," Mr. Brien said, before reading verbatim from the public prosecutors' deskbook.
"In the assessment of the evidence, the evidence must demonstrate that there is a reasonable prospect of conviction."
And if there is, Mr. Brien added, "does the public interest require a prosecution to be pursued?"
Mr. Poilievre referred repeatedly Monday to a Federal Court ruling from January 2010 in which the Conservatives, on behalf of two candidates caught up in the in-and-out dispute, won a partial victory. Elections Canada is appealing the ruling.
Significantly, so are the Conservatives. Mr. Justice Luc Martineau's decision found that 10 party candidates, including three current cabinet ministers, overspent their limit.
Moreover, Judge Martineau's ruling clearly stated that he did not assess the legality of the overall party financing scheme and noted "there remains an ongoing investigation by the Commissioner and therefore it would be premature and inappropriate for the court to comment or rule on this question."
NDP Leader Jack Layton called the government's defence "ridiculous spin doctoring."
"The fact is these allegations suggest that they used millions or certainly over a million dollars to help bolster an advertising campaign in a close election," Mr. Layton said in the Commons foyer. "If that turns out to be true, then it's a fundamental violation of our democratic principles."
Liberal MP Bob Rae quipped that Mr. Poilievre's "accounting" defence sounds like "what Al Capone said when he was arrested for income tax evasion."