Sutcliffe campaign files fundraising complaint against Horizon Ottawa

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Ottawa mayoral candidate Mark Sutcliffe’s campaign is looking for an investigation into fundraising and campaign-support efforts of a third-party advertiser backing one of his high-profile opponents.

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The office of city clerk Rick O’Connor confirmed Wednesday it had received a complaint from the Sutcliffe campaign against Horizon Ottawa, which has disclosed support for Catherine McKenney for mayor and for other candidates for city councillor positions in the Oct. 24 municipal election.

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Sutcliffe’s campaign, as first reported by Postmedia columnist Brian Lilley Wednesday, called for an investigation into whether Horizon Ottawa, as a third-party advertiser this election, has accepted cash donations above the limit of $1,200 and whether the organization violated Ontario’s Municipal Elections Act over offers to train candidates and campaign staff for candidates it would be backing.

However, the statement from O’Connor’s office Wednesday said the city clerk has no role in investigating such allegations of improper fundraising under the Municipal Elections Act.

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“More specifically, the Election Compliance Audit Committee (ECAC) is the quasi-judicial body responsible for reviewing and making decisions on applications for municipal election campaign finance compliance audits,” the statement added.

It went on to say that, for the 2022 municipal election, the first date a compliance audit application could be accepted would be April 3, 2023. The term of the five current ECAC members concludes Nov. 15. A successor committee is to be established by Oct. 1.

A screenshot of a previous version of the Horizon Ottawa election 2022 donation webpage showed suggested amounts of $25, $50, $100, $250, $1,000 and $2,500, plus a tab marked “Other Amounts.”

The updated version of the page shows $25, $50, $100, $250, $500, $1,200 and “Other Amount.”

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Jaime Sadgrove, a Horizon Ottawa volunteer and spokesperson, said the organization’s original webpage for donations had been repurposed for the municipal election campaign and one link — the one for $2,500 — had been missed during the update. As well, the original webpage had linked to a general bank account that could not be used for the campaign; a separate account specifically for election donations had since been created, Sadgrove said.

The most any one contributor can cumulatively give to two or more parties registered in the same municipality is $5,000. The Municipal Elections Act requires that “each contributor is informed that a contributor shall not make contributions exceeding” the respective limits of $1,200 and $5,000 when making a donation.

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The campaign websites of Sutcliffe and another high-profile candidate, Bob Chiarelli, display such notes. The website of McKenney’s campaign did not as of Wednesday evening, though it linked to a City of Ottawa “Contribution Rebate Program” webpage with references to both limits.

Horizon Ottawa issued a statement on behalf of its board, saying the organization knew the rules well and “received legal advice to ensure that we were all above-board prior to registering.” That statement also said Horizon Ottawa had not and would not accept donations over $1,200 as a third party, would publish names for all those donating more than $100 two days before the Oct. 24 election and would ensure it corrected clerical errors if and when they arose.

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“The Sutcliffe campaign is spending time and energy trying to discredit a volunteer-driven organization, time that could instead be spent connecting with community members and communicating Sutcliffe’s vision for the city,” the statement added.

In response to a query from this newspaper, Sutcliffe’s campaign said Wednesday only that it could “confirm Brian Lilley’s reporting from earlier today. We are unfortunately not available for further comment on this issue today.”

Provincial third-party advertiser election rules say an individual convicted of an offence under the Municipal Elections Act may be subject to penalties including a fine of as much as $25,000; a prison sentence of as long as six months; being ruled ineligible to register as a third-party advertiser until after the next regular election; or, if convicted of bribery or other corrupt practices, being ruled ineligible to vote or run in the next regular election.

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As well, a corporation or trade union convicted of committing an offence may be subject to a fine of up to $50,000 and ineligibility to register to be a third-party advertiser until after the next election.

If a third-party advertiser is convicted of exceeding a spending limit, they may also be fined the amount by which they exceeded the limit, the regulations say.

The complaints from Sutcliffe’s campaign follow what the candidate described as a “smear campaign” against him that began with critiques by Horizon Ottawa that a fundraising event he took part in last weekend, for which attendees were invited to donate $1,200 — the campaign maximum, was a “cash for access” event.

The event page for the fundraising event at a Lansdowne Park condominium on Sept. 10 listed a $1,200 “attendance fee” matching the maximum individual contribution, although Sutcliffe told Postmedia earlier this week he believed that figure was only a suggestion and a range of amounts below the maximum were donated by those who attended.

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Subsequently, Horizon Ottawa flagged in social media posts and a media release a 2016 Ottawa Citizen column written by Sutcliffe in which he criticized both the governing Ontario Liberal government’s participation in fundraisers where tickets sold for thousands of dollars earned businesses access to government decision-makers and the rules that allowed it to happen.

Election Compliance Audit Committee

Under the provincial Municipal Elections Act, an Election Compliance Audit Committee (ECAC) is mandatory for all municipalities and school boards. The City of Ottawa’s ECAC has five members. The current committee’s term ends on Nov. 14. A new committee is to be established by Oct. 1 for the next term ending Nov. 14, 2026.

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The ECAC reviews and makes decisions on applications for municipal election campaign finance compliance audits, as well as on reports from the city clerk on potential violations of election contribution limits. The committee can appoint an auditor to review campaign finances and, in the case of those audits or in considering reports from the city clerk, decide whether or not to launch legal action against a candidate, third-party advertiser or donor who appears to have gone over the set contribution limits.

Who can submit applications for compliance audits?

Any eligible elector who believes a candidate or third-party advertiser has gone against campaign finance rules. Criteria include being a Canadian citizen at least 18 years of age and either a resident/land owner/tenant in the local municipality or the spouse of such an owner or tenant. They must also not be prohibited from voting, such as a corporation or anyone serving a jail or prison sentence.

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When can applications for compliance audits be submitted?

The first date applications would be accepted for the 2022 municipal elections is April 3, 2023.

Applications must be submitted within 90 days of the latest of the following dates: the initial financial statement filing date (deadline March 31, 2023); the date which a candidate filed an initial financial statement, if filed within 30 days after the applicable filing date; the candidate’s supplementary filing date, if there was one (deadline Sept. 29, 2023); and the date on which any extension the candidate may have gotten expires.

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