Top strategists for the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party privately raised concerns that several candidates in this year’s election campaign – some of whom are now sitting MPPs – had ties to a political operative convicted of fraud but opted not to take action before the vote.
The PC campaign war room strategists drew up lists of the party’s candidates suspected of connections to Snover Dhillon after learning that he had created a shell entity and allegedly duped a would-be contender into paying him tens of thousands of dollars.
A Globe and Mail investigation has found that questionable nomination and campaign financing practices under former leader Patrick Brown continued to cause concern for the PC Party even after its election victory on June 7. According to insiders, the transition team for Doug Ford, Mr. Brown’s successor, considered possible links to Mr. Dhillon during private deliberations over who would receive cabinet appointments in the new government.
The Globe reviewed documents, including e-mails and banking records, and interviewed 22 party insiders, including current and former staffers, political operatives and organizers involved with local nomination races and this year’s general election campaign. The sources were granted anonymity by The Globe because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the party’s deliberations and feared professional consequences.
Internal e-mails show that, one year before the election, senior advisers to Mr. Brown crafted a plan to address allegations of ballot-box stuffing, ineligible voters and fake memberships in two nomination races – but did not implement it. The party ultimately overturned the results in a total of six races after Mr. Brown was forced to resign earlier this year amid allegations of sexual misconduct, which he has denied.
It is still not clear how many additional races were compromised or which unsuccessful candidates and MPPs hired Mr. Dhillon. Nomination contenders were not required to disclose spending to Elections Ontario prior to July 1, 2017, when many of the disputed votes took place. Even within the party, strategists had different lists of candidates suspected of ties to Mr. Dhillon, but did not pursue formal investigations.
The Globe also uncovered financial connections between Mr. Dhillon and Mr. Brown, who is now mayor of the Toronto suburb of Brampton.
The revelations come amid two active police investigations – one into allegations of stolen data, the other into alleged fraud and forgery – and they shed new light on how Mr. Dhillon’s role as a power broker continues to haunt the provincial Tories long after Mr. Brown’s resignation.
Mr. Ford has previously blamed Mr. Brown for the “mess” he inherited and ignored opposition calls for the Ontario Provincial Police to conduct a provincewide probe of the party’s nomination practices. The Premier’s Office declined to answer questions from The Globe.
It was midway through the election campaign when PC strategists working in the war room command centre in Toronto learned that Mr. Dhillon had used the name of a well-known polling company for the party in his dealings with a client, according to six sources close to the situation.
Mr. Dhillon had registered the business name Elect Right Polling Co., corporate records show, listing himself as the sole proprietor. The name mirrors that of ElectRight Inc., owned by a friend of Mr. Brown.
Randeep Sandhu, a client of Mr. Dhillon who ran unsuccessfully for the nomination in the riding of Brampton West, wrote cheques totalling $29,000 to Mr. Dhillon’s entity to help with his campaign. Mr. Sandhu declined to comment.
In his dealings with Mr. Dhillon, it was suggested to Mr. Sandhu that the money was earmarked for a campaign fund to help Mr. Brown, according to two of the sources.
Mr. Brown has no knowledge of the matter, said Gary Collins, a spokesman for the mayor, in an e-mail. He added that if anyone had checked with Mr. Brown, he “would have made it clear that no such fund existed.”
But the war room strategists had to contend with the fact that not only was Mr. Sandhu demanding a refund in the middle of the election campaign, he was threatening to go public with the story.
Michael Crase, the executive director of the PC Party and a former chief operating officer of ElectRight Inc., brought the dispute to the attention of the strategists, one source said.
Mr. Sandhu had unwittingly gone to ElectRight Inc. to ask for his money back, according to the six sources. He had made a $20,000 initial payment to the similar-sounding Elect Right Polling Co., according to a copy of the cancelled cheque obtained by The Globe. The cheque was cashed on Nov. 8, 2016 – one day after Mr. Dhillon registered that name.
Geoffrey Janoscik, a lawyer for ElectRight, sent Mr. Sandhu a letter saying his client had no connection to the other entity. “We would suggest that you redirect your concerns to Elect Right Polling Co. and the individuals associated with it,” he wrote on June 8, 2018.
Mr. Dhillon did not respond to messages seeking comment from The Globe. He has previously defended his work as a campaign organizer, saying he ran nomination bids but made no guarantees of success. He has not disclosed who hired him.
The episode was not the first time Mr. Dhillon had forced party insiders to question his influence on nomination races held under Mr. Brown.
Mr. Brown’s relationship with Mr. Dhillon dates back more than a decade. Advisers to the leader warned him to stay away from Mr. Dhillon, given his criminal record. His fraud convictions relate to activities in 2010: He was sentenced to probation for defrauding a bank of $11,500 and served 41 days in jail in connection with a fraudulent real estate deal.
After the PC Party’s nomination races kicked off in late 2016, Mr. Brown and Mr. Dhillon often met weekly at fast food joints between events or at the end of the day, said two long-time members of the then-leader’s inner circle. The meetings were not part of Mr. Brown’s official agenda.
Copies of Mr. Brown’s personal bank records reviewed by The Globe show that Mr. Dhillon made an electronic transfer of $1,000 to Mr. Brown on Sept. 8, 2017. Mr. Brown told The Globe that Mr. Dhillon reimbursed him for costs Mr. Brown had incurred on his behalf during the lead-up to a public community event. “That was a one-off and unique situation,” he said in an e-mail in October.
Mr. Dhillon also picked up the tab for Genevieve Gualtieri, now Mr. Brown’s spouse, to travel to Sault Ste. Marie to help with the by-election campaign of Ross Romano. Mr. Dhillon paid $1,142 for Ms. Gualtieri’s airfare for two trips in May, 2017, according to e-mails he sent to Mr. Brown and obtained by The Globe. Earlier this year, Mr. Brown told the province’s ethics watchdog that he did not ask Mr. Dhillon to pay for the flights and that Mr. Dhillon was trying to “suck up” to him.
In his financial statements filed with Elections Ontario, Mr. Romano did not declare any campaign contributions from Mr. Dhillon. Mr. Romano, a friend of Mr. Brown from law school, won the by-election and was re-elected in June. He did not respond to questions from The Globe.
One year before the provincial election campaign, as nomination scandals mounted, Mr. Brown’s senior advisers attempted to do damage control by crafting a plan to have the leader announce he was rejecting vote results in two ridings, according to e-mails obtained by The Globe.
Back-to-back nomination votes on the first weekend of May, 2017, had sparked a flurry of negative headlines. In the riding of Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas, a losing candidate filed an appeal with the party, alleging “gross irregularities and voter fraud.” And in Ottawa West-Nepean, party activists also complained about voting irregularities.
It would turn out that Mr. Dhillon had played an influential role in the disputed votes, working for contestants in both. The Globe has previously reported that a printer was secretly churning out fake Rogers and Scotiabank statements that voters used as identity documents during the Hamilton meeting. In Ottawa, a group of Toronto-area residents posed as local voters after travelling there by bus. More than two dozen phony members listed at one apartment building had the same names as people connected to Mr. Dhillon or his associates through social media.
Mr. Brown’s advisers worked through the night on a strategy to have him overturn the votes in both ridings, the e-mails show. Just before midnight on May 18, chief of staff Alykhan Velshi sent a draft statement to his colleagues for feedback.
“While complaints from losing campaigns are common occurrences, here the alleged irregularities truly are exceptional,” it said.
At 1:37 a.m., campaign manager Andrew Boddington pushed back at the use of the word “exceptional,” suggesting something “not quite so severe.”
A few hours later, at 6:34 a.m., Mr. Velshi sent a revised version, writing that he had “removed the word ‘exceptional,’ but I don’t want to soften it too much. It is imperative that we put a box around these two races to make it difficult for other ridings where there were complaints to be bundled in with them now or at a later date.”
However, 45 minutes later, the plan hit a roadblock in the form of an e-mail from Mike Richmond, a party lawyer and long-time friend of Mr. Brown.
“Here’s the question that the statement fails to answer: if the irregularities were so significant as to cause you to redo the nominations, that means there must have been extreme fraud or extreme incompetence,” he wrote.
Mr. Richmond went on to mention nomination races in three other ridings where losing candidates and riding association executives had also filed complaints alleging a host of problems.
“Also, there will be calls to redo Burlington and Richmond Hill and Newmarket. If there was evidence of fraud at Hamilton and Ottawa, then why would we insist there couldn’t possibly have been any at those other meetings?” he wrote.
Mr. Richmond did not elaborate in the e-mail on the allegations in the three ridings. He declined comment when reached by The Globe.
In two of the three ridings he named in his e-mail, the PC candidates would go on to win the election: Jane McKenna in Burlington and Daisy Wai in Richmond Hill.
A board member of the riding association in Burlington had alleged that the meeting was “tainted” by numerous breaches of party rules, including allowing people who were not on the membership list to vote without proper identification.
Ms. McKenna did not respond to e-mails from The Globe. She previously said Mr. Dhillon did not work on her nomination campaign.
In Richmond Hill, where the riding president broke a tie vote in Ms. Wai’s favour, a rival candidate alleged that two of her supporters with physical disabilities could not cast ballots because the meeting was held in an inaccessible room.
Ms. Wai told The Globe her nomination campaign was “fair, ethical and honest.” She, too, said she never hired Mr. Dhillon.
In his recent book, Mr. Brown said he told his advisers considering how to respond to the controversies in the Ottawa and Hamilton races to “fight it out” and unite behind a strategy. “They came back the next day and said they agreed on one recommendation: to do nothing. And that was it.”
Party officials ultimately overturned the results in the Ottawa and Hamilton races after Mr. Brown resigned.
In Hamilton, police are still probing allegations of fraud and forgery in what is believed to be the first such criminal investigation of a political party’s candidate selection meeting in Canada. Even though nomination races are a cornerstone of democracy and the first step to winning elected office, there is no independent oversight by federal or provincial electoral watchdogs.
The PC Party conducted two separate reviews of some of the contested nomination votes. In the first round, held under interim leader Vic Fedeli in February, officials examined six of the most controversial nominations and announced that new votes would take place in two, including Ottawa West-Nepean.
The nomination in Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas was overturned in Round 2, just days after Mr. Ford assumed the helm of the party in March. The party ordered new votes in three other ridings, including Brampton North, where Mr. Dhillon helped his friend Jass Johal secure the nomination.
Around the same time, Mr. Johal and Mr. Dhillon were swept up in a probe by the province’s Integrity Commissioner, who ruled that Mr. Brown broke ethics rules by failing to disclose a $375,000 loan from Mr. Johal.
The candidacy of Charity McGrath in Newmarket-Aurora, one of the races mentioned in Mr. Richmond’s e-mail, was also overturned.
Another client of Mr. Dhillon, Brampton East candidate Simmer Sandhu (no relation to Randeep Sandhu), later dropped out of the race after his former employer, the company that operates the 407 toll highway north of Toronto, reported an “internal theft” of 60,000 customer names and addresses.
York Regional Police’s major fraud unit is still investigating the data breach. Mr. Ford said in May that he would not call for an external probe into whether any PC candidates used allegedly stolen 407 data to further their campaigns.
Elections Ontario launched a review in May in response to a complaint from the New Democrats. But the electoral watchdog would not comment on the status of the review.
The Premier’s Office referred questions from The Globe to Marcus Mattinson, a PC Party spokesman who only addressed Mr. Dhillon’s use of the name ElectRight in his response. He said the company is a recognized vendor that has done business with the party for many years. But he said the party does not recognize an entity called Elect Right Polling Co., “Nor have we engaged in any business relationships with Snover Dhillon.”
With research by Stephanie Chambers
Editor’s note: (Dec. 28) An earlier version of this article said the head of the PC riding association in Burlington had alleged the meeting was “tainted” by breaches of party rules. In fact, the person was a riding association board member.