Left-leaning city councillor Maria Augimeri has survived a hard-hitting attempt by rival Gus Cusimano to seek a forensic review of her campaign finances.
Council’s three-person compliance audit committee on Monday unanimously rejected Mr. Cusimano’s request – which focused on the rent for her campaign office – because he failed to present reasonable grounds to warrant an investigation.
The decision represents yet another set-back in Mr. Cusimano’s campaign, which has been prominently backed by Mayor Rob Ford, to unseat the veteran North York politician. After narrowly losing to Ms. Augimeri last fall, he persuaded a judge to order a by-election, claiming irregularities with the voter’s list. The city’s clerk’s office initially opted not to appeal, but reversed itself after critics accused Mr. Ford of interfering with a judicial process. (No such interference was ever proven.)
Ms. Augimeri had also moved to appeal.
Following Monday’s compliance audit meeting, Mr. Cusimano said he doesn’t plan to challenge the ruling in court. “I’ll go by the committee’s decision,” he told reporters. “I’ve already spent enough money on lawyers.”
Although she appeared nervous during the meeting, Ms. Augimeri said she was not surprised by the committee’s verdict. “We didn’t do anything wrong.”
The crux of the dispute involved the market value of Ms. Augimeri’s campaign office. She maintained that the location, which she shared with two school board candidates, was in horrific condition when she agreed to lease it in March. The storefront had been used as a butcher store, and she told the committee that the previous owner had vacated the space abruptly, leaving meat to rot. Ms. Augimeri said her volunteers worked to clean the space and block off unusable rooms.
Mr. Cusimano, a real estate broker, alleged that Ms. Augimeri effectively received a $7,445 subsidy on the space, which he claimed did not require extensive remediation. In a power-point presentation to the committee, he showed photos of Ms. Augimeri’s campaign office launch in early September, which featured guests helping themselves to snacks and listening to the candidate speak on a microphone.
He also submitted real estate listings from the Multiple Listing Service and contended that the price she paid was “well below market.” Paula Boutis, Ms. Augimeri’s lawyer, responded by noting that “a listing is not fair market value, it’s an asking price.” An affidavit submitted late Friday included numerous before-and-after photographs of the space.
Asked why she’d lease a location in such poor condition, Ms. Augimeri said, “The [spending] ceiling is very low, so you can’t rent luxury space.”
Mr. Cusimano, in fact, struck out twice Monday, as the committee voted to order an audit of his own campaign finances, requested by retired council veteran Howard Moscoe and Donna Lynn Tucker. They alleged he failed to report some election costs associated with his signs, and also improperly listed the legal costs associated with his court challenge as an election expense.
The committee rejected a compliance audit request against Ana Bailao, the newly elected councillor for Davenport. Activist and freelance writer Roger Brook, a local resident who had volunteered on the campaign of rival Kevin Beaulieu, submitted a laundry list of claims questioning her fundraising, campaign contributions and a profile of her in Senso, a local Portuguese-language publication.
Lawyers for Ms. Bailao presented a detailed side-by-side rebuttal, noting, at one point, that Senso regularly profiles politicians.
Ms. Bailao could not say how much she spent to defend herself, but added, “Lawyers are not cheap.” Asked if she felt Mr. Brook’s request was vexatious, Ms. Bailao paused before replying, “I’ll leave that to the readers to decide.”
The committee will review compliance audit requests against four right-leaning councillors – Doug Ford, James Pasternak, Michael Thompson and Giorgio Mammoliti – on Wednesday. Earlier this spring, the committee ordered a campaign audit of the mayor’s election finances; that decision is currently before the courts.
Special to the Globe and Mail