A former provincial cabinet minister running to lead the BC Liberal Party has lost nearly 1,400 new memberships ahead of this weekend's convention, after irregularities that were linked to a Canadian company under investigation for its role in helping the Leave side win the Brexit campaign.
Todd Stone's campaign said on Friday that 1,349 party memberships – out of the party's roughly 60,000 registered members – had been disqualified after the party discovered missing e-mail addresses. His campaign confirmed the memberships were connected to consultancy AggregateIQ.
Campaign co-chair Peter Fassbender said the memberships involved people whose first language is not English.
"They were having problems in terms of the process," Mr. Fassbender said in a Friday interview with Radio NL in Kamloops.
Mr. Fassbender, who did not respond to requests for an interview, told the radio station that the sign-ups violated party rules and were due to an "individual in the company [AggregateIQ] who was trying to find a method to assist these people."
The new leader will be announced on Saturday after three days of voting. The party said "thousands" of new memberships were disqualified in the lead-up to the vote, but would not provide an exact number or a breakdown of which campaigns they were connected to.
Mr. Stone drew criticism from some of his five leadership rivals last month when news broke that his campaign had hired AggregateIQ for the race to replace former leader Christy Clark.
Britain's Information Commissioner is looking into AggregateIQ's role in the Brexit campaign after the country's Electoral Commission revealed that the Leave side paid the equivalent of $4.6-million to the Canadian company for political work. No specific allegations of wrongdoing have been made, but commissioner Elizabeth Denham has said that she is particularly concerned with how personal information was analyzed to target voters.
B.C.'s Privacy Commissioner confirmed it is working with the British probe while also investigating whether AggregateIQ is compliant with privacy legislation in its home province. A representative from that office declined to comment on Friday on either investigation.
AggregateIQ did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment on Friday. One of the company's founders has previously said the firm was co-operating with the British investigation.
When AggregateIQ's connection to Mr. Stone emerged, his spokesperson said the firm was maintaining and marketing "digital campaign assets," but Mr. Stone's team had complete control over the voter and supporter information gathered by these digital tools.
On Friday, Mr. Fassbender released a statement saying Mr. Stone "immediately requested a full investigation to determine exactly what had transpired" after Liberal party auditors discovered the irregularities a week earlier.
The campaigns of Andrew Wilkinson, Michael Lee, Dianne Watts and Mike de Jong wrote a letter to the party's rules committee asking for the disclosure of allegations related to invalid or rejected party memberships collected by Mr. Stone's campaign. The campaigns said they would raise their concerns with the media if the party did not issue a "substantive written response" to address the issue.
As allegations swirled around Mr. Stone and his team, representatives for Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. de Jong disclosed that they had cancelled 129 and 80 memberships, respectively. It's unknown how many memberships, if any, were cancelled from the camps of Mr. Lee and MLA Sam Sullivan, a former mayor of Vancouver.
Laura Ballance, a spokeswoman for Ms. Watts, estimates that the former South Surrey-White Rock MP signed up between 7,000 and 8,000 new members and had fewer cancellations than Mr. Stone's 1,349. Ms. Balance did not say how many fewer.
"You just have to see Peter Fassbender's comments on what [the Stone camp is] admitting to and that speaks for itself," Ms. Ballance said. "For us, we're not going to get into another campaign [discussing] what they did or did not do."
Former attorney-general Geoff Plant, who is overseeing the integrity of the leadership vote, said a range of problems were found on memberships from all candidates and a "significant number of application forms failed to meet the high bar required to pass scrutiny and were rejected." He did not provide a breakdown of how many were cancelled from each leadership hopeful's team or how many in total were disqualified, only saying they numbered in the thousands.
He said an investigation into allegations of irregularities in Mr. Stone's sign-ups led the party to reject those membership applications, many of which had already been cancelled because of a "problem with the email address on the paper form." He did not say how many of the disqualified memberships originated from digital applications, which are approved immediately after the registration fee is processed.
"We've done everything we can to ensure the membership base, the voting, has integrity," he said.
"Don't assume that there is wrongdoing when there is no evidence that, to my knowledge, there was."
In an internal party statement issued late Friday afternoon, he assured Liberals that all memberships were vetted rigorously and that the party machinery "acted appropriately and effectively in setting and enforcing the rules of this process."
"Recent media reports are a reminder that the process has worked," the statement said.
On Saturday Mr. Stone said in a statement to his supporters ahead of the end of voting,that the party is under attack from some insiders. "I am deeply troubled and saddened by inflammatory and highly divisive comments by some who have questioned our team's integrity for the sake of their own political gain," he wrote in an e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail.
The former transportation minister wrote that he did not, nor would not sanction or condone anything that would violate the rules of the leadership race.
But in a separate e-mail statement, the Stone campaign acknowledged that they were advised by party headquarters on Jan. 12 of concerns regarding e-mail addresses listed on nearly 1,400 applications and told they would not be accepted.
The campaign continued to pursue the approval of the membership applications until a Jan. 28 hearing when in response to "new evidence" regarding those concerns, the campaign withdrew its request for the applications to be approved.
"At the conclusion of that meeting, the (leadership rules committee) determined that no further action was required," said the statement.
The campaign did not respond to calls seeking further comment.
With a file from Ian Bailey