Stephen Harper and other directors of the Conservative Fund dismissed the party’s executive director over the payment of private school tuition fees for Andrew Scheer’s children to avoid a backlash from donors and grassroots Conservatives, according to a source close to the former prime minister.
But last week’s surprise decision by the fund to fire the party’s top staffer, Dustin van Vugt, has instead sparked even more internal divisions.
Neither Mr. Harper nor the other six members of the party’s all-powerful fundraising arm were aware of the tuition payments, Conservative Fund sources have told The Globe and Mail. However, that’s disputed by a source close to Mr. van Vugt, who said the fund’s chair was aware of the tuition payments. The Globe is keeping the names of the sources confidential in order to discuss internal party matters.
In a Saturday conference call, members of the National Council were told that at least one person on the Conservative Fund knew about the party paying for Mr. Scheer’s children’s tuition, according to a source with direct knowledge of the meeting.
Irving Gerstein, the fund’s chair and a former Conservative Senator, did not respond to requests for comment.
The Conservative Fund is the not-for-profit organization that raises and spends money to fund the Conservative Party. The National Council is the elected body that oversees the party operations.
The fund’s directors were unanimous that Mr. van Vugt had to go because the private school expenditures would be politically damaging and impact fundraising efforts, sources said. But the decision was made without fully consulting the party’s elected executive and has created a firestorm within the party. Mr. van Vugt is well-regarded within the Conservative movement.
The internal dispute comes as leadership contenders start to organize behind the scenes and contenders will be asked if they support paying private school fees for the leader’s children in a party that prides itself on being anti-elitist.
One source close to Mr. Harper told The Globe that the former prime minister never charged any personal expenses to the Conservative Party and neither did former interim leader Rona Ambrose because they knew that would upset party donors.
The source said Mr. Scheer does not believe he did anything wrong by having the party pay his children’s private school fees. A separate Conservative source said Mr. Scheer believes he followed the party’s rules and was under the impression others involved in the payment had as well.
It is rare for party money to fund private education for leaders’ children. Mr. Harper sent his children to public schools, as does Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. However, parties generally pay for leaders’ travel, wardrobe and makeup when it’s work related. In 2010, The Canadian Press reported that Mr. Harper had a stylist who was first paid for by taxpayers and then paid for by the party.
Mr. Harper’s former director of policy, Rachel Curran, emphasized the distinction between work and personal expenses in a social-media post on Sunday.
“Prime Minister Harper never accepted supplementary income or personal expense payments," Ms. Curran said on Twitter. “Additionally, he and his family paid all wardrobe and clothing and related ‘personal style’ costs.”
Spokespeople for the Conservative Party and Mr. Scheer did not provide comment to The Globe, nor did Mr. van Vugt. Last week, Mr. Scheer’s team and Mr. van Vugt denied the allegations.
Anger over his firing is coming from party members and activists as well as National Council members. In social-media posts, some council members said they had no heads up about his dismissal.
It was "exclusively handled by the Fund in consultation with the President,” Matthijs van Gaalen said on Facebook, adding Mr. van Vugt’s “expertise and insights will be missed.”
Mr. van Gaalen did not reply to a request for comment.
Council president Scott Lamb did not reply to requests for comment. However, one source close to Mr. Lamb said while he was made aware of Mr. van Vugt’s dismissal, Mr. Lamb did not have any say in the decision.
In an e-mail sent to party members in Alberta, National Council member Steven Dollansky said the decision about Mr. van Vugt’s position “was made unilaterally by the Fund.”
The fund’s actions have been “disrespectful” to the National Council and shows the “very real need to reform that relationship," Mr. Dollansky wrote.
He called Mr. van Vugt “one of our Party’s greatest assets.” Mr. Dollanksky declined to comment further when contacted by The Globe.
The National Council has three meetings scheduled this week to discuss the formation and membership of the party’s leadership committee and the fate of its April convention – which, until Thursday, was going to be where party members voted on Mr. Scheer’s future at the helm.
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