CANADA

The storm over election spending

KEN MACQUEEN,HILARY MACKENZIE November 18 1985
CANADA

The storm over election spending

KEN MACQUEEN,HILARY MACKENZIE November 18 1985

The storm over election spending

John Reimer, Conservative member of Parliament from Kitchener, Ont., first learned that the RCMP was investigating his election expenses on May 3, when a newspaper reporter telephoned at 12:15 a.m. with a number of pointed questions. The next day the story was in the newspaper and on local radio newscasts. “It hurts, yes, no question about it,” recalled Reimer, who consistently claimed that he spent $36,985 in last year’s federal election —less than 90 per cent of the limit that had been established for his riding.

Then, after almost five months, the commissioner of Canada elections, Joseph Gorman, notified Reimer on Sept.

26 that the investigation had “revealed no evidence of wrongdoing.”

Nine of Reimer’s fellow MPs, representing all three political parties, have not been so fortunate. Last week eight were still under investigation by the RCMP for possible overspending during the campaign leading up to the September, 1984, federal election. One of them, former communications minister Marcel Masse, resigned from the cabinet on Sept. 25 after he learned that police had raided his riding office in Thetford Mines, Que. And last month independent Toronto member Tony Roman became the first MP to be charged with election overspending since the Canada Elections Act was revised in 1974 to limit the election expenses of political parties and individual candidates. But for Reimer and the others still under investigation, the slow progress of the inquiries, the damaging publicity and the heavy-handed use of the RCMP have raised serious doubts about the fairness of the Elections Act.

The investigations have led to strong criticism of Jean-Marc Hamel, Canada’s chief electoral officer since 1966, and Gorman, who as election commissioner determines who will be prosecuted. Masse, for one, says that he is deeply frustrated over delays in determining whether he will be charged or exonerated by the investigation. “I never had an opportunity to meet with the chief electoral officer and his staff

to answer questions or give an interpretation of what happened,” Masse told Maclean's. If the investigation continues indefinitely, Masse said, he may resign his seat. Added a source close to Masse: “There appears to be a vendetta element creeping in. More than one year after the election a cabinet minister’s situation is unresolved—that says something

about the enforcement mechanism.”

For his part, Hamel acknowledged in an interview with Maclean's last week that there are serious weaknesses in the enforcement provisions of the Elections Act. He added that he will

recommend in a report -

to Parliament in severCopps: ‘delays, al weeks that the RCMP be removed as the sole agency allowed to investigate possible infractions under the act. Instead, he said, the law should be amended to give his office “investigatory powers,” enabling him to hire private investigators, lawyers or accountants to conduct investigations. According to Hamel, many election expense questions are merely accounting matters that could be handled

“more expeditiously and, let’s say, more quietly,” without involving the

RCMP.

At the same time, Hamel flatly denied charges by several MPs under investigation that some of the current investigations had been handled unfairly. But some of the MPs say that the inquiries have indeed been handled callously or inconsistently. Liberal MP Sheila Copps—who is challenging a claim that she spent $2,008 more than the $35,599 that is permitted in her Hamilton-East riding—said that she was initially advised by the election commissioner’s office that the problem would be resolved if she submitted a revised expense claim that corrected errors in her original statement. But the revised statement, which put her $4,000 under the limit, failed to end the investigation. “Everything was moving along very smoothly until the information surrounding the Masse case sur~ faced,” claimed Copps. | “Then all of a sudden z we kept facing what S amounts to delays, delays, delays.”

For candidates convicted of irregularities in election spending—the limits are based on the number of eligible voters in the riding—the penalties could range from a small fine for a relatively innocent error to a maximum penalty of five

years in prison, a

delays’ $5,000 fine and a pro-

hibition on sitting in the Commons for as long as seven years. But for many of the MPs under investigation, it is not just the price they could pay if they are guilty that worries them. Declared Reimer: “The

present process only leads to conviction by innuendo—whether or not charges are ever laid.”

-KEN MACQUEEN with HILARY MACKENZIE in ; Ottawa