OTTAWA -- Bus benches and highway billboards are at the heart of a dispute with Elections Canada that could find two Manitoba Conservative MPs suspended from the House of Commons.
James Bezan and Shelly Glover are going to court to challenge Elections Canada's rulings that they must claim as an election expense the full commercial value of advertising signs they erected while MPs, but which remained up during the 2011 federal election.
Including the value of those advertisements would put both of them over their spending limits for the campaign -- Glover by about $3,300 and Bezan by around $3,500.
Exceeding expense limits in an election is punishable by fines of between $1,000 and $5,000, or a prison term of between three months and five years. The higher penalties are reserved for those who willfully exceed the limit.
The dispute is outlined in a series of letters between Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand and Conservative party lawyer Arthur Hamilton in April and May. The letters are included in the election files of Bezan and Glover and were obtained by the Free Press.
Mayrand has asked House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer to abide by section 463(2) of the Canada Elections Act and not permit Bezan or Glover to sit or vote as MPs until they comply with the request to fully account for these ads as election expenses.
'No reasonable campaign would incur the extraordinary costs of constructing a permanent sign during a writ period'
Hamilton subsequently told Scheer Mayrand's request was premature since both Glover and Bezan are asking the courts to determine whether they have complied with the Elections Act. Hamilton called Mayrand's suspension request "deeply disappointing."
Glover's court case is set for June 21 and Bezan's for September.
Scheer has decided to let Bezan and Glover sit and vote until the court cases are resolved.
The Liberals and NDP have both argued the two should be suspended pending the outcome.
Both Bezan and Glover argue their election expenses complied with the law.
In letters to Hamilton, Mayrand says the signs -- highway billboards in Bezan's case and bus benches and sidewalk garbage and recycling-bin advertising in Glover's case -- clearly serve as advertising for both of them during the election and as such have to be claimed as an expense even though the signs were purchased before the election.
Mayrand says they need to claim the full commercial cost of those signs as election expenses. Not doing so gives them an unfair advantage over opponents. "These signs were used during the election period and directly promoted the candidate," Mayrand wrote to Hamilton on May 13.
In response, Hamilton says the signs are not election advertising, do not promote or oppose a candidate, a party or party leader, and therefore should not be included.
In Glover's case, the additional signs would add $2,072.94 to her election expenses. Her campaign has refused to accept that as an expense. She did amend the signs during the election with stickers saying they were authorized by her official agent but that did not make them election advertising, Hamilton argues.
Bezan's claim would have to go up more than $26,000.
In Bezan's case, Hamilton said that since Elections Canada ruled in 2008 that the billboards -- most of which had been up since 2005 -- must be claimed as an election expense, Bezan modified them to use them as election advertising. However, he said the campaign shouldn't have to claim the full cost of the billboards because Bezan would not have bought such pricey ads during an election. "No reasonable campaign would incur the extraordinary costs of constructing a permanent sign during a writ period," Hamilton wrote to Mayrand on May 5.
It would be reasonable to make Bezan claim the commercial cost of the kind of temporary sign he might have installed during a campaign, which Hamilton said is about $518 per sign.
Elections Canada says the correct amount would be $1,900 per sign, the commercial value of erecting them.
"Using the commercial value of an inferior sign is the equivalent of reporting the campaign's office rental expense using the rental value of a different office," Mayrand wrote.
The Glover campaign is also at odds with Elections Canada over wages paid to two campaign staffers. Originally Glover's campaign claimed wages of $1,515.55 ($15.54 per hour) paid to Lisa Rowson, whose duties, according to an employment contract submitted to Elections Canada, involved media content, co-ordinating volunteers and election-day work.
Patricia Rondeau was hired as an office administrator, volunteer co-ordinator and election-day worker, to be paid at $25.64 per hour for a total of $2,692.20.
However in a May 5 letter to Mayrand, Hamilton said this was a mistake, and that really Rowson and Rondeau performed door-knocking duties and should have only been paid $10 an hour.
He said they had returned the overpayments and that was being held in trust until the campaign determined where the money should go.
Mayrand rejected that request, saying the employment contracts contradict the idea the two were hired only for door-knocking.
The documents show both Elections Canada and the candidates backed down on some disputed items.
Elections Canada, for example, agreed with Glover she did not have to claim expenses for signs in community and curling clubs that were not open to the public during the election.
Glover also accepted she had to claim the full expense for her MP website, after first saying she should only have to claim part of it since the parts of the site pertaining to donations weren't used during the campaign.
Bezan also agreed to add $9,942.86 for an MP householder flyer that was sent during the campaign.
Hamilton said not including it originally was "an honest mistake" because of a misunderstanding over the date the flyers were sent.