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Newspaper ads that attacked teachers’ unions appear to violate laws, Elections Ontario says
June 26, 2020
Lara Stone

Ontario’s elections officer says the group behind a series of newspaper ads that attacked the province’s teachers’ unions appears to have broken elections laws.

Elections Ontario said in a letter to the NDP on Wednesday that Vaughan Health Campus of Care, which ran ads under the name Vaughan Working Families that were linked to a Progressive Conservative appointee, is in “apparent contravention” of two sections of the Election Finances Act.

Greg Essensa, Ontario’s chief electoral officer, has referred the matter to the Ministry of the Attorney-General and it may be investigated by police and prosecuted by the Crown, said the letter from Kevin Thomas, manager of compliance enforcement at Elections Ontario.

The penalty for violating the two sections of the act, which require groups to register as third-party advertisers during an election period, is a fine up to $5,000. The NDP had alleged the group had not registered as a third-party during two Ottawa-area by-elections.

A lawyer representing Vaughan Working Families said Wednesday the group did not contravene the Elections Finances Act “in any way whatsoever and was not required as a matter of law to register as a third-party advertiser during Ontario’s two most recent by-elections.”

Lawyer Stephen Thiele called on Elections Ontario to also investigate two teachers’ unions that ran unregistered ads during the same time period. Mr. Thiele is a partner at the same Toronto law firm as Gavin Tighe, who has previously represented Premier Doug Ford and his family, and who was appointed by Mr. Ford’s government in 2018 to chair the province’s public accountants council.

The Ontario NDP had asked provincial election officials in February to investigate any possible links between Mr. Ford’s government and Vaughan Working Families, whose ads echoed the government’s language in its heated labour dispute with the province’s teachers’ unions last winter.

Quinto Annibale, the lawyer who registered the name Vaughan Working Families, and was also listed as a director of Vaughan Health Campus of Care, is a large donor to the PC Party whom the Ford government named vice-chairman of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. The Toronto Star previously reported that invoices for the ads were sent to Mr. Annibale care of his law firm, Loopstra Nixon LLP. Mr. Annibale did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

“We understand that VHCC is represented by another law firm in respect of the Elections Ontario proceedings. Mr. Annibale has not been a director of VHCC since his resignation on Feb. 12, 2020,” Loopstra Nixon spokesman Allan Ritchie said.

Mr. Ford said Wednesday he had nothing to do with the advertisements and has no relationship with Mr. Annibale.

“I’m just telling you, honestly, if someone gave me a million dollars right now --don’t even know that person’s name,” he said.

NDP ethics critic Taras Natyshak, who filed the complaint with Elections Ontario, said he’s pleased to see “these extremely fishy ads” deemed in apparent violation of the law.

“Ontarians deserve transparency, and third-party advertisers need to play by the rules,” he said in a statement.

The name Vaughan Working Families was registered in 2018 by Vaughan Health Campus of Care. According to corporate records, the corporation’s president is prominent Toronto-area developer Michael DeGasperis, a donor to the PC Party. Mr. DeGasperis did not respond to requests for comment.

According to Elections Ontario, Vaughan Health Campus of Care was registered as a third-party political advertiser in 2018 and in 2014. Elections Ontario says third-party advertisers must register upon spending $500 during an election period.