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B.C. NDP leader John Horgan, left to right, Liberal Leader Christy Clark and B.C. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver pose for a photo following the leaders radio debate in Vancouver, B.C., April 20, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

The Canadian Press

Elections BC is investigating after an NDP candidate in Richmond complained he was the victim of unfair and inaccurate attack ads.

The ads, sponsored by the Better Richmond Concern Group, accused Chak Au, the NDP's candidate for Richmond South Centre, of breaking a promise to oppose issues like new supervised-injection sites, same-sex marriage, unisex public washrooms and young children receiving sex education. The BC NDP, the ads note, is a party that advocates for those issues.

The Better Richmond Concern Group registered with Elections BC as a third-party advertiser, as it was required to do. However, whoever is responsible for the group remains unknown.

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Mr. Au complained to Elections BC that the ads did not include the required contact information and they were being distributed within 100 metres of an electoral office.

The Elections BC registration form lists King Chan's telephone number and e-mail address as the contact for the group. But Mr. Chan said in an interview he is just a "nobody."

"Obviously, I am a useless guy in the group. I am pretty dumb; when they asked me to use my name, I agreed to it," Mr. Chan said, adding he didn't expect there to be such a furor over the ad when he agreed to become the contact person.

Mr. Chan wouldn't name the "bigger figures" he said were behind the group: "I don't know them and I don't want to."

The attack ads first appeared in Chinese-language newspapers and the Richmond News with a telephone number, though on flyers, they were printed without any contact information.

The Globe contacted Stephen To, whose number was printed in the newspaper ads, but Mr. To also said he was not in charge of the group. He said someone else was, but declined to name who. Mr. To also said he was a Liberal supporter, both provincially and federally.

Bill Li Tze Lung and Lily Cheung Wai Han are listed on the Elections BC registration form as the principal officers in the group. Ms. Cheung's address is listed as the mailing address for the group. However, the townhouse unit in Burnaby turned out to be empty and is for sale.

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Mr. Au's campaign manager, Henry Yao, said they reported the issue to Elections BC in early April and filed an official complaint on April 25, two weeks before the May 9 provincial election. But, Mr. Yao said, the problem was not addressed.

"With the sensitivity of the situation and with the time urgency, I definitely prefer a far more timely and effective measure to address this issue," said Mr. Yao. "I know they tried, but I don't think they helped."

Andrew Watson, a spokesman for Elections BC, said the Election Act requires all advertising sponsors to register, and to include in their advertising an authorization statement – which includes a British Columbia telephone number or mailing address where the sponsor can be contacted. Additionally, they are required to file a disclosure report after an election if they sponsor $500 or more in election advertising. Since the flyers lacked an authorization statement, Elections BC hasn't been able to determine who was handling them.

Dermod Travis, executive editor of IntegrityBC, said legislation around third-party advertisers is weak because it only applies to election campaigns, not any other period.

"Such groups do not meet the test of a genuine association, and the individuals behind them should be required to register as individuals and not as unincorporated associations as a means to prevent such front groups being used clandestinely for potentially nefarious reasons during election campaigns," Mr. Travis said.

Mr. Travis said the Better Richmond Concern Group should have a legal duty to disclose the sources of its funding for the six-month period prior to an election.

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Duff Conacher, Democracy Watch's co-founder, said Elections BC should conduct an audit on registered groups. "It's pretty easy to hide and just claim that others gave the money if you have set up a front group," said Mr. Conacher. "Anyone can donate to these things, but they are not allowed to collude to exceed the expense limit.

"[Elections BC] cannot just run it as a system where they trust anybody to disclose what they are doing."

Mr. Yao said the attack ads showed up off and on from late March until election day. The flyers were found along Lucas Road, Blundell Road, and in Stevenson.

"They were literally everywhere," Mr. Yao said.

A photo provided by Mr. Yao shows a flyer that was right in front of an electoral office located in the Richmond Public Market.

Mr. Au lost the May 9 election to Liberal MLA Linda Reid, 6,159 votes to 4,893. Mr. Au said he is disappointed with the result, but without data, cannot prove how much he was affected by the attack ads.

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Elections BC told The Globe it cannot provide more details as the investigation is ongoing. But it said it is an offence under the Election Act to sponsor election advertising if not registered or without an authorization statement. If convicted, the penalties for each offence include a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for a term not longer than one year, or both.

Columnist Gary Mason says British Columbia is now a divided province, with the Liberals finding support in the interior and north, while the NDP dominates in Metro Vancouver. But the latter region is growing while the interior remains stagnant, leaving a question over the Liberals' future election prospects.
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