Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford has been accused of interfering in a local party nomination race by signing up bogus members to help a candidate of his choice.
The Liberals released documents and an audio recording of Mr. Ford on Thursday that they say show him recruiting members and suggesting the fees would be paid by others – a violation of the party’s rules.
The revelations draw Mr. Ford into the controversy that has dogged the PC Party in recent days over nomination practices under his predecessor, Patrick Brown. Mr. Ford denied the allegations and accused the Liberals of trying to hurt his campaign before the June 7 election.
“This is about the Liberals being desperate,” he said at a campaign stop in Tillsonburg, Ont.
The documents released by the Liberals relate to a nomination race in Etobicoke Centre won by Kinga Surma. Her rival, Pina Martino, filed a formal complaint with the PC Party in November of 2016 accusing Ms. Surma of signing up more than four dozen individuals as members either without their consent or without them paying the $10 fee. Under party rules, members must pay their own fees.
In the audio recording, which the Liberals say was made in October, 2016, Mr. Ford is heard suggesting people’s fees would be paid by others and encouraging them to leave membership forms incomplete.
“Kinga is running. It doesn’t cost ya anything, we’re just signing people up today. That’s it,” Mr. Ford is heard saying as he and Ms. Surma canvass at a Tim Hortons.
Mr. Ford did not deny the authenticity of the recording but said he did not pay for anyone’s memberships. The Liberals have had the recording, which they said was made by a man who wishes to remain anonymous, for several months.
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Liberal Party campaign co-chair Deb Matthews called on Mr. Ford to fire Ms. Surma as a candidate. “These practices contradict the rules and regulations that Mr. Ford, as leader, has pledged to enforce.”
Ms. Matthews released an e-mail from Ms. Martino in which she accused Mr. Ford of “attempting to intimidate me” by following her twice just days before the Nov. 22, 2016, nomination meeting. Mr. Ford denied the accusation: “No, that never happened.”
In an affidavit, Ms. Martino described how she went door-to-door in the riding and discovered that many of the people listed as members had neither signed forms nor paid the $10 fee. Many of the individuals she talked to said both Mr. Ford and Ms. Surma had come to their homes to invite them to the nomination meeting. Everyone on the membership list was entitled to cast a ballot.
Helmut Haeuserer, one of the people on the list, told The Globe: “Absolutely I didn’t buy a membership.” He added that he has never been a member of any party but invited Mr. Ford and Ms. Surma into his home because he did not want to leave them standing outside.
Mr. Ford said Ms. Martino’s complaint was dealt with through an internal party appeals process. “The claims were dismissed.”
Asked about the nature of his relationship with Ms. Surma and why he went to such lengths to support her campaign, Mr. Ford said his family has helped candidates “for the last 30 years” in Etobicoke Centre.
Ms. Martino was one of several prospective candidates or riding association officials who made formal complaints to senior party officials about problems in the candidate selection process. However, all the appeals were rejected under Mr. Brown’s leadership. He resigned in January amid allegations of sexual misconduct, which he denies. The party later overturned six nomination races.
Neither Ms. Surma nor Ms. Martino responded to requests for comment. Ms. Surma is a former city hall staffer who served during Mr. Ford’s late brother, Rob Ford’s time as mayor of Toronto. Ms. Martino is a lawyer who was Mr. Brown’s interim chief of staff after he became leader in 2015.
Mr. Ford has come under pressure in recent days to investigate revelations that a number of local nomination races may have been marred by electoral interference. A recent Globe and Mail investigation found widespread allegations of ballot-box stuffing, ineligible voters and fake party memberships under Mr. Brown’s leadership.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called on Mr. Ford to “be upfront with the people of Ontario” about his involvement with Ms. Surma’s nomination.
The nominations controversy has sparked infighting between Mr. Ford and his predecessor. Mr. Ford, who became leader in March, has said he inherited a “mess” from Mr. Brown. In turn, the former leader defended his legacy in a recent essay.
As well, Elections Ontario is reviewing whether any PC candidates used stolen personal data to further their campaigns. The review was prompted by the resignation of PC candidate Simmer Sandhu last week, after his former employer, the company that operates the 407 toll highway, reported an “internal theft” of 60,000 customers’ names and addresses. Mr. Sandhu denied the allegations. Police are investigating the alleged theft.
Conservative sources expressed dismay that Mr. Ford’s campaign has been knocked off message for the past week.
Despite the party’s rule requiring that people pay for their own memberships, some Conservatives said many candidates covered the fee for new members.
“Everybody was doing it ... I’d say 90 per cent of the candidates,” said veteran Conservative strategist John Mykytyshyn.
With a report from Oliver Moore.