Friday, June 09, 2006

More Liberal Sleaze and Corruption

Fri Jun 9 09:25:42 2006

By: Alexander Panetta / Canada.com

OTTAWA (CP) - A number of Liberals are using taxpayer-funded parliamentary offices to promote party leadership bids and would be breaking federal election laws if they fail to refund the public purse.

Supporters of at least eight of the 11 leadership candidates have used MPs' offices on Parliament Hill to distribute partisan campaign material, according to e-mails obtained by The Canadian Press.

During parliamentary business hours, offices have churned out invitations on campaign letterhead to meet candidates, attend leadership launches, or get together with campaign staff.

One Liberal MP called the practice unethical and said it runs deeper than just e-mails.

"This is the tip of the iceberg," he said. "There are interns being used to do (campaign) work, there's the odd phone call to twist a colleague's arm.

"But that's not traceable."

The Canada Elections Act declares it illegal to make campaign contributions when ineligible, and sets out maximum penalties of a $1,000 fine or three months in jail for violating Section 497 of the act.

A spokeswoman for Elections Canada said MPs' staffers are ineligible to work on campaigns while being paid for their time from the public purse.

"These rules are very similar to those applicable to MPs during an election period," said spokeswoman Diane Benson.

She said any work done during business hours should be paid by the individual leadership campaign - not by the taxpayer.

"If a member of an MP's staff engages in leadership campaign work for the MP or for any other leadership contestants during normal working hours, then a proportionate share of that person's salary . . . must be included as a leadership campaign expense," she said.

"The same applies to the use of the member's office facilities or supplies."

Liberal party officials pointed out that leadership candidates still have a year to disclose their campaign expenses. They will be in full compliance with the law if they refund the government for the public resources they use.

One Liberal leadership campaign forwarded at least 17 e-mails to The Canadian Press from different parliamentary accounts that suggest campaign work is being done during business hours.

The e-mails were sent from supporters of Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae, Gerard Kennedy, Stephane Dion, Hedy Fry, Maurizio Bevilacqua, Ken Dryden and Carolyn Bennett.

At the very least, those e-mails indicate that the leadership campaigns have used a few hundred dollars' worth of office time and equipment.

However, any campaign using office hours on more time-consuming pursuits - writing leadership speeches, lobbying supporters, updating websites, producing press releases - could be using tens of thousands of dollars in public resources.

The e-mails forwarded to CP were mainly brief, poster-style invitations for Liberals to attend campaign events.

One memorable e-mail invitation to join Hedy Fry this week for a campaign event in Ottawa promised an evening of "dancing with drag queens."

Liberal brass weren't amused by the accusations being levelled from within their own ranks. They said it's too early to rush to judgment on any of the candidates.

The leadership race ends in December, and candidates will have an additional six months to file their expense claims.

"We expect that all leadership campaign activities be fully disclosed and the expenses incurred to undertake those activities be fully disclosed," said Steven MacKinnon, the party's national director.

"Once (candidates) do that . . . they've complied with the law and the rules."

MacKinnon also pointed out that the Liberals have an internal complaints mechanism to deal with alleged transgressions. The party can impose fines of up to $100,000 or disqualify leadership candidates who break the rules.

The news comes on the heels of a controversy involving candidate Joe Volpe.

Volpe accepted $54,000 in 10 separate donations from the top two executives at generic drug manufacturer Apotex Inc., their wives and their six children - including 11-year-old twins.

He insisted he had done nothing wrong but agreed to return the money donated by the five donors under age 18.

Some of Volpe's rivals are still grumbling, however, that his continued presence in the race is harming Liberal efforts to rebuild the party's image following the sponsorship fiasco.

The latest leak of memos from MPs' offices will not help Liberals attain another precious objective for the coming months: party unity.

Most candidates have repeatedly said the party must move on from years of infighting between its Jean Chretien and Paul Martin factions.

The internal leaks, and the complaints about Volpe, suggest the party has slipped back into full-on, back-stabbing mode.

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