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Federal Liberal leadership candidates, from left to right, Justin Trudeau, Martin Cauchon, Karen McCrimmon, Joyce Murray, Martha Hall Findlay, George Takach, Deborah Coyne, David Bertschi and Marc Garneau pose for photographs after the party's first leadership debate in Vancouver, Jan. 20, 2013. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Federal Liberal leadership candidates, from left to right, Justin Trudeau, Martin Cauchon, Karen McCrimmon, Joyce Murray, Martha Hall Findlay, George Takach, Deborah Coyne, David Bertschi and Marc Garneau pose for photographs after the party's first leadership debate in Vancouver, Jan. 20, 2013. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Would-be Liberal candidate takes shot at party rules in fundraising plea Add to ...

A would-be Liberal candidate is invoking the party’s open nomination rules as part of his fundraising efforts to pay down his leadership campaign debt.

Lawyer David Bertschi, who is seeking the Liberal nomination in the riding of Ottawa-Orléans, has sent an e-mail to party members seeking help to pay down the six-figure debt that he incurred in the 2012-2013 leadership race.

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His main rival in the nomination battle is retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie, who is a defence adviser to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, stoking concerns that the party is favouring his candidacy in the nomination race.

In an interview, Mr. Bertschi said the party’s decision to consider campaign debts as part of the approval process for nominations, more than 18 months ahead of the election, is puzzling him.

“It’s about the grassroots, it’s about fairness, it’s about representing your community to the best of your abilities and letting the people decide, as opposed to artificial rules that may be retroactively imposed on people,” he said.

He added that his main rival’s “membership drive is stalled,” while he said that people are still joining his camp “in droves.”

“There seems to be a lot of leaks after our last big membership push. Is that coincidental? I don’t know,” Mr. Bertschi said, calling for an open process that will allow the best candidate to win.

Mr. Bertschi loaned $95,000 to his campaign, which ended with an additional $55,000 in unpaid claims, according to statements filed with Elections Canada.

Mr. Bertschi said his debt now stands at slightly more than $120,000, down from $150,000 when he dropped out of the race ahead of the leadership vote. However, Mr. Bertschi could be excluded from seeking the Liberal nomination in the 2015 election for having carried a debt higher than the $100,000 threshold that was set at the start of the campaign.

While the leadership rules were being debated in 2012, Mr. Bertschi sent out a statement calling for “debt-free” campaigns.

“It is critical that all candidates, prospective or otherwise, practice reasonable fiscal restraint. If he does decide to enter the leadership race, David Bertschi promises that he will not go into debt. It is imperative that each candidate is capable of running their respective national campaigns without taking on personal debt,” the Bertschi campaign said at the time.

On Monday, Mr. Bertschi sent out a fundraising pitch to Liberal members, arguing that he had to pay down his debt to follow the party’s “revised” nomination rules.

“The Liberal Party of Canada has recently revised the criteria to run as a candidate to make leadership debt an issue. Therefore, in order to continue to run as your candidate, the amount of debt incurred during my leadership race must be reduced. I need to raise $25,000 in the next 10 days [italics in the original letter]. I need your help to meet this target,” Mr. Bertschi said in an e-mail, a copy of which was forwarded to The Globe and Mail.

Mr. Trudeau promised to open up all nominations across the country during the leadership race, but the process is now causing some headaches in the party. The biggest problems have surfaced in Toronto, after the Liberal Party blocked would-be candidate Christine Innes from running in a by-election in Trinity-Spadina.

There are some concerns in Liberal circles that Mr. Trudeau and his team are playing favourites with some of their star recruits, such as Toronto MP Chrystia Freeland and Mr. Leslie, who both played a prominent role at last month’s Liberal convention in Montreal.

The chair of the Liberal Party’s Green Light Committee, which must approve all candidacies in nomination races, said in a letter to would-be candidates that the issue of leadership campaign debts was discussed at a recent meeting with Mr. Trudeau. According to Jack Siegel, the committee decided that “there are to be no candidates for the Liberal Party in the 2015 election who have outstanding debt from previous Liberal leadership contests.”

In the letter, Mr. Siegel said that all former leadership candidates need to provide a clear plan to pay down all outstanding debt.

“Since the leader has made it clear that he will not endorse anyone whose debt has not been retired, I need to impress upon you the importance not only of providing this plan, but of living up to it in full. The prospect of an individual with the profile of a previous leadership contestant being nominated as a candidate of the Liberal Party, and then having that nomination revoked is something that would be most embarrassing and troubling to candidate and party alike,” Mr. Siegel said.

However, Mr. Siegel also made it clear that leadership candidates who broke the $100,000 limit on campaign debt could be blocked from seeking a Liberal nomination.

“If this was the case in respect of your Leadership campaign, I would therefore urge you to ensure that you provide a detailed explanation of the circumstances under which the breach arose and how it was resolved, including, in particular, any discussions with Party officials that took place on the subject,” he said.

Mr. Bertschi said that more than one Liberal leadership candidate, including MP Marc Garneau, went over the $100,000 limit. Mr. Garneau paid down a portion of his debt with a recent fundraiser that was attended by Mr. Trudeau, a situation that Mr. Bertschi would like to see happen in his case as well.

“I want everyone treated fairly, with respect,” Mr. Bertschi said. “If you’re going to allow some to breach it and others not, that certainly leaves you with an unfortunate taste in one’s mouth in a democratic society.”

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