In a sharp rebuke to a left-leaning election fairness coalition, a council committee has rejected all the requests for compliance audits targeting four of Mayor Rob Ford's closest supporters, including his brother Doug.
The other councillors are Giorgio Mammoliti, chair of the community development and recreation committee, Michael Thompson, chair of the economic development committee, and James Pasternak, a council rookie and former school board trustee.
"We did everything according to the rules," Mr. Thompson said after the three-person committee rendered its verdicts. He didn't rule out a bid to recover costs against the applicants.
With these decisions, the committee members clearly signalled that they didn't feel there were reasonable grounds to proceed with full-blown audits, which can cost candidates thousands of dollars in accounting and legal fees.
Toronto Public Library board member Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler, a spokesman for the Election Fairness Coalition, said he was "very surprised" by the decisions, and added that his group will now consider whether to appeal the compliance audit committee's rulings.
The coalition, formed earlier this spring after the three-person committee ordered a forensic review of Mayor Rob Ford's campaign expenses, says its mandate is to change and clarify Ontario's municipal campaign finance laws through litigation and law reform.
And indeed, Wednesday's two-hour session featured an often-technical debate over the fine points of the legal definition of campaign fundraising activities.
The compliance audit requests filed by the coalition against the four politicians alleged that the candidates couldn't properly account for all the expenses associated with campaign fundraising.
According to Ontario's municipal election rules, fundraising expenses are not included in spending limits for councillors and mayoral candidates.
Jack Siegel, a lawyer who specializes in election law and represented three of the councillors, argued that 2009 amendments to the legislation have broadened the scope of fundraising expenses that can be excluded from overall campaign spending. The previous version of the Municipal Elections Act said candidates could exclude costs associated with running fundraising "events" but the amendments now talk about fundraising "activities" as well.
Mr. Siegel said fundraising expenses such as direct marketing, ongoing telephone solicitations and fundraiser salaries all fall under that definition.
Eric van Eyken, the lawyer for the coalition, disputed that interpretation, arguing that if provincial lawmakers had wanted to allow candidates to exclude all fundraising expenses from their spending totals, the legislation would have said so. "That couldn't possibly have been the legislative intent."
The committee, which is composed of two lawyers and a veteran elections officer, decided early on to render the four decisions after hearing the details on all four requests. The councillors didn't speak, and Mr. Ford didn't show up in the crowded committee room. He was represented by Tom Barlow, the lawyer who has represented Mayor Rob Ford in the legal fight over his compliance audit. The mayor has appealed the decision and the case is currently before the courts.
Mr. Pasternak, the novice, appeared nervous during the proceeding, taking notes and shaking his head as Mr. van Eyken itemized allegedly missing revenues from various campaign events. During his turn, Mr. Thompson listened intently, occasionally snapping a photo of the coalition's lawyer with his smart phone.
Mr. Siegel, a veteran of many Liberal campaigns, argued his case forcefully while Mr. van Eyken at times seemed uncertain. At one point, Virginia MacLean, one of the committee members, asked Mr. van Eyken whether he had any experience with political fundraising. "Like many youth, I grew up watching The West Wing," he replied, jokingly.
During the morning session, the committee ordered audits for three unsuccessful candidates who were alleged to have accepted corporate donations, which are not permitted under the city's election rules.
Peter LiPreti, one of the three, is a former city councillor, and contended that the contributions came from family-owned businesses and represented personal donations. "To my understanding, if it is a sole proprietorship, even it is a corporate donation, they can legally give money to the campaign," he said after the session.
Mr. Chaleff-Freudenthaler told the committee that he had found corporate registration numbers for all the donors. "The law is quite clear."