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National Audit of Vaughan mayor's campaign expenses finds more than two dozen possible violations

Vaughan Mayor Linda Jackson faces a tough political future after a devastating court-ordered audit of her 2006 campaign expenses found more than two dozen possible violations of the Municipal Elections Act.

The audit, released yesterday, found that Ms. Jackson's campaign overspent its limit of $120,419 by at least $12,356. The audit found a number of other violations, including failure to report a payment of $3,810 to The Toronto Star, which was paid by a bank draft purchased with cash not deposited to the campaign account.

It also found that in-kind contributions, such as donations of food to campaign events, had been under-reported, that expenses had been improperly allocated to fundraising costs, which are unlimited, and that the campaign accepted improper donations.

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The audit, which was ordered by a Provincial Court judge, now goes to Vaughan City Council, which could determine that the mayor should be charged with violating the act or possibly even be removed from office, according to Eric Gillespie, the lawyer for the citizens who asked for the audit.

The audit is the latest development in one of the most bitter municipal campaigns in recent Ontario history.

After Ms. Jackson, the daughter of long-time Vaughan mayor Lorna Jackson, narrowly defeated incumbent Michael Di Biase, he sought a court-ordered recount of the results, which confirmed her 90-vote victory.

Earlier this year, Vaughan City Council ordered an audit of Mr. Di Biase's expenses, similar to the one just completed on Ms. Jackson.

Ms. Jackson said that she had not had an opportunity to review the results of the audit, that she understood that many citizens will not be happy with its outcome and that she looks forward to "a clearing of the clouds" in the next few months.

Mr. Gillespie noted that his clients asked for an audit soon after the 2006 campaign expenses were published. "The auditor's findings clearly legitimize our clients' calls for a comprehensive audit," he said.

While it will be up to Vaughan council to decide what to do with the audit, he predicted that it will likely do as Hamilton's council did when it retained an independent counsel to decide whether charges were in order against then-Hamilton-mayor Larry Di Ianni after an audit found he broke the spending rules. Mr. Di Ianni was charged, and became the first public official to be found guilty of violating the Municipal Elections Act.

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Under Ontario law, a voter can ask for an audit of the campaign expenses of a municipal or school board candidate. The request is ruled on by either an independent audit committee or the body - council or school board - for which the election was held.

In an unrelated case yesterday - which may, however, have a significant impact on future challenges of municipal election expenses - a Provincial Court judge turned down a request by defeated candidate Sean Harrison for an audit of the 2006 campaign expenses of Michael Coteau, now vice-chair of the Toronto District School Board.

In a precedent-setting decision, Judge Patrick Sheppard found that a review of Mr. Coteau's expenses was not warranted and, more important, ruled that courts must give deference to the city audit committees that are appointed to review such challenges.

The ruling on Mr. Harrison's case is the first time that an Ontario court has ruled on an appeal from an audit committee ruling, and Judge Sheppard found that since the committee was both independent and composed of experts on municipal election finance, the court should give far greater deference to its findings than to a municipal council.

Earlier appeals had been on rulings by municipal councils, and Judge Sheppard found that since elected councillors possess no real expertise on municipal finance law and may also exhibit "competitive electoral bias," the court need not defer to their decisions.

Mr. Coteau's lawyer, Jack Siegel of Blaney McMurtry LLP, said in an interview that, because the ruling means that a compliance audit committee be given a high level of deference by the court, a committee's finding on an audit request is far less likely to be overturned than one made by a municipal council.

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