Monday, April 21, 2008

This is a party with nothing to hide?

For a party that continues to vehemently insist on its innocence, the Conservatives are certainly acting like they have something to hide. The events of Sunday afternoon, from secret clandestine meetings, to misleading the media, to sneaking out stairwells, certainly paint a picture of a Conservative Party running from accountability and transparency.

You’ll remember last week the RCMP, acting on behalf of Elections Canada, executed a search warrant on Conservative Party headquarters in Ottawa, carting out several boxes of documents. The raid was believed to be (and is) in relation to the so-called In and Out Scandal, which allegedly saw the CPC funnel national money through local riding campaigns to buy national advertising in an attempt to circumvent national spending limits, as well as increase the taxpayer refund each local campaign is entitled to. Elections Canada has denied the expenses as not being local spending and continues to investigate the scheme, the CPC is suing Elections Canada over the denied refunds (they want money from the taxpayers they’re not entitled to.)

Actually, the Conservatives don’t really contest how the scheme worked. They just don’t think it was against the law. Unfortunately for them Elections Canada, the body charged with interpreting and enforcing election law, disagrees with them. The Cons also claim all the parties do this; a claim again dismissed by Elections Canada. And, as we know, the Conservatives have had some difficulty with the nuances of election law in the past.

But back to the raids. The media successfully fought in court to have the 700-page search warrant released to the public; that will happen Monday. The Conservatives of course already had a copy of the warrant, after all, they were the ones being served and searched or, as they put it Sunday “stormed” by the RCMP. Imagine if the Liberals impugned the motives of our national police force in that way? The Conservatives would be up in arms. But I digress.

In an attempt at spin and damage control, the Conservatives decided Sunday to leak portions of the warrant to hand-picked media in top-secret briefings, in an attempt to frame the story in the most positive light possible ahead of the release of the warrant Monday. It didn’t work out too well, as the media coverage shows. Just read the headlines:

RCMP targeted alleged Tory spending scheme

Tories on defensive over Elections Canada raid
Tories violated elections law: Elections Canada

Search warrant cites 'false and misleading statements' on Conservative ads
Tories battered, evidence mounts of vote scheme
Riding deposited $40,000, money returned 5 days later

So, mission accomplished there. Actually, this thing went off the rails pretty quickly for them Sunday. Garth Turner broke news of the planned secret briefings at the Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa, and media members got wind of them too, leading to this exchange where CPC spokesperson Ryan Sparrow denied any briefing was happening:

When one reporter asked in an e-mail about the news conference, Mr. Sparrow replied: “No conference, not sure where you got that from.”

The reporter then flipped Mr. Sparrow back an e-mail in which he had told another reporter who was on the list that the briefing would be at “4:30 Lord Elgin, Boardroom 800. Embargo until 7:30 pm Sunday night.”

To which Mr. Sparrow replied: “I meet with journalists privately all the time.”

As a journalist myself I’ll tell you one thing, we don’t like being lied to or misled, and we tend to react strongly when we are, so it’s generally not a good idea.

But it gets better. As the rest of the media pack got word of the secret briefings, and were understandably miffed to be shut-out, they decided to stake-out the Lord Elgin. This forced the Conservatives to beat a hasty retreat to the Shearton where, as Kady blogs, the media stake-out continued.

Finally, after conducting a few briefings, the CPC decided to call the whole thing off and get out of dodge, leading to my favourite bit of this story so far:
The first briefing for select television outlets took place but, by that time, the excluded reporters found out the new location and began to stake out the hotel.

That led the Conservatives to cancel all subsequent briefings, including the one they had planned with The Globe. And Mr. Sparrow, Mr. Finley and Mr. Lepsoe fled from the Sheraton down a back set of stairs.

Other reports indicate it may have been a fire escape which, all things considered, seems rather appropriate, given that their pants may well have been on fire. The chase actually continued into the parking lot however, as shown in this exclusive video:

But while this whole thing with the media at various Ottawa hotels today does indeed come off like a Benny Hill farce, the alleged Conservative actions in this in and out scheme, as outlined in the warrants, are anything but farce:
The document alleges the Conservatives violated the Elections Act "by incurring election expenses that exceeded the election expense spending limit" by $1.1 million.
It also alleges that 67 Tory candidates "improperly" sought taxpayer-funded rebates on expenses they did not incur.

Adds the Star:

The third allegation comes under the obligation to file "true and complete reports." The allegation is that the party's official agent filed returns with Elections Canada "that it knew or ought reasonably to have known contained a materially false or misleading statement" on its expenses.

The range of penalties for exceeding the election expense limit for a party's chief agent is $1,000 fine, three months imprisonment or both. A registered party is liable to $25,000 fine.

Also of note is this from the Globe:

According to the CTV report, the affidavit handed out by the party does not reveal much more about the case than was known already. But it does confirm that the search was not related to a lawsuit launched against Elections Canada by the Conservatives after the Elections Commissioner had begun an investigation of the scheme.

Which puts to lie this early Conservative post-raid spin:

In the Commons, Harper linked the raid to the ongoing civil lawsuit launched by the Conservatives against Elections Canada's interpretation of the 2006 campaign advertising financing rules, and an alleged $1.2 million in campaign overspending.

The party insider, speaking on condition he not be identified, slammed the extraordinary raid that took place on the eve of a hearing during which Elections Canada officials were to be questioned by Conservative party lawyers…

"Is it a coincidence that they visited party headquarters today when tomorrow they fully knew that their officials were going to be examined (by Conservative party lawyers) as early as tomorrow morning? We see this as a PR stunt, a tactic of intimidation."

And it’s important to note the Conservatives only released partial information today; we’ll have to wait until Monday morning for the full warrant information to be released and to see what they didn’t want to show their hand-picked media contacts Sunday. It should make for interesting reading.

For more blogging takes on Sunday's events, see Garth Turner, Apply Liberally, Impolitical, Poggee, David Akin, Paul Wells, Adam Radwanski, Accidental Deliberations, Scott Tribe, Jason Cherniak and Saskboy.

And from Dan Cook, a little art:

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The Rat said...

Just a couple questions, Jeff:

Do you think it is appropriate or responsible for the media to act out of "vengeance"? Does that mean their reporting will be different than if they got the access they demanded? Doesn't this mean we have to ask for a reporter's motivation behind a story? In fact, doesn't your statement (echoed by many other reporters) give credence to the people who feel the media is biased and self-serving?

It sure seems to me that you are less interested in truth than in flexing your muscles and showing just how much power you have.

Jeff said...


While I did use the word vengance I think I said something like "with a vengeance" not "with vengeance" which is a different thing. Anyway, they will be acting strongly to be sure.

Is it right that their shoddy treatment by the Conservatives will colour their coverage? Probably not. But as much as a journalist tries to keep any personal feelings out of their work they are only human. And, at the very least, I'd argue the CPC actions here make it seem as if they have something to hide, which if nothing else is going to make an enterprising reporters antennae perk up, and cause them to dig deeper.

I'd also argue that any blowback is/was a foreseeable outcome of the CPC strategy. If conservatives are at all upset at the tone of any coverage they need only look in the mirror, for they are merely reaping what they've sown. It's all well and good to bemoan an adversarial media, but when you deliberately set out to antagonize them, what do you seriously expect?

If you want to go out on a limb, you could say they Cons deliberately arranged this while thing to be able to counter the in and out allegations with cries of media conspiracy and bias. I don't give the CPC that much credit though, I think they just, to use the family friendly term, messed up.

Saskboy said...

With the Conservatives taking tax payers dollars for ads, one has to wonder just WHAT it is that they've done differently from the Liberal scandal for the same thing!