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A demonstration organized by teachers unions takes place outside the Ontario Legislature, in Toronto in February, 2020.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The RCMP is investigating whether newspaper ads that supported the Ontario Progressive Conservative government in its labour dispute with teachers unions last year violated the province’s election finance rules that require third-party political groups to register.

The ads, which ran in early February, 2020 – before the COVID-19 pandemic set in – were credited to a little-known group calling itself Vaughan Working Families, which turned out to be a corporation that listed prominent Toronto-area developer Michael DeGasperis as its president.

After a complaint from the NDP, Elections Ontario concluded last June that the ads constituted an “apparent contravention” of the Election Finances Act, potentially punishable by a fine of up to $5,000. The agency referred the matter to Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney-General for police investigation and prosecution.

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On Tuesday, in Question Period at Queen’s Park, the Opposition NDP revealed that the case was now in the hands of the RCMP. A spokesman for the Mounties, Corporal Dmitri Malakhov, confirmed to The Globe and Mail in an e-mail that an “investigation into this matter is ongoing.” Premier Doug Ford’s office said it would be inappropriate to comment.

The next provincial vote is not until June, 2022. But the ads appeared as by-elections were under way in two Ottawa-area ridings.

Initially, just who was behind them was a mystery. The Ford government has said it was not involved with the ads, which featured a frowning stock photo of a woman holding up a report card and accused teachers unions of using schoolchildren as “pawns.”

Education Minister Stephen Lecce, the PC MPP for King-Vaughan, north of Toronto, was facing off with teachers over his plan to increase class sizes at the time. The ads appeared in weekend editions of The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Toronto Sun and The National Post.

Corporate records revealed that the Vaughan Working Families name had been registered in 2018 to a corporation called Vaughan Health Campus of Care, a corporation set up more than a decade earlier to promote a proposal for a new local hospital. Mr. DeGasperis and a handful of other prominent local businessmen and PC donors made up its board.

Mr. DeGasperis did not respond to a request for an interview on Tuesday about the RCMP probe. But a lawyer acting for Vaughan Working Families, Stephen Thiele of Toronto firm Gardiner Roberts LLP, replied in an e-mail the matter was “minor” and that his client denies the allegations.

Mr. Thiele said Vaughan Working Families “did not contravene any law and no charges have been laid in connection with the ads, which were simply circulated in print only in parts of the GTA to express an opinion on a matter of fundamental importance to a developed democracy: public education.”

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According to Elections Ontario, Vaughan Health Campus of Care was registered as a third-party political advertiser in 2018 and in 2014 – but not in 2020. Elections Ontario says third-party advertisers must register upon spending $500 during an election period.

A Vaughan lawyer who had registered the Vaughan Working Families name, Quinto Annibale, resigned his post as a director with Vaughan Health Campus of Care last year after the story broke. In 2019, the Ford government had named Mr. Annibale, who has given the PC Party more than $30,000 since 2014, vice-chairman of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. Mr. Annibale did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

In Question Period, NDP MPP Peter Tabuns demanded that the government allow the legislative committee that scrutinizes public appointments to question Mr. Annibale for a second time to ask about his involvement in what Mr. Tabuns called the “shadowy group.” Government House Leader Paul Calandra did not answer that question but said he was confident in Elections Ontario’s ability to ensure elections are conducted fairly.

Last year, the NDP had also called for Elections Ontario to probe any alleged “collusion” between Vaughan Working Families and the governing PCs. But according to a letter obtained by The Globe and Mail, the agency told a lawyer for the PC Party last June it found no evidence of a “relationship” between the group and the party and said it would take no further action.

The NDP on Tuesday also pointed to the government’s frequent use of ministerial zoning orders (MZOs) that allow it to fast-track approvals for developers who are often PC donors, including the DeGasperis family. The NDP listed two MZOs from last year that directly benefited the family’s TACC Group of Companies, including one for a large mixed-use development in Brampton, west of Toronto.

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