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This article was published 1/3/2011 (3153 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — A civil court victory the Conservative party has touted as vindication against charges of election wrongdoing has been unanimously overturned by the Federal Court of Appeal.
The ruling confirms Elections Canada's interpretation of electoral spending laws and says it was reasonable for the electoral watchdog to reject the way the Conservative party reported national advertising expenses for the 2006 election.
The three-judge panel's ruling guts the Conservatives' main line of defence since charges were laid last week against four top party officials. Until Tuesday, the government had questioned why Elections Canada was pursuing charges on a matter that had already been settled in the civil suit.
"We've been repeatedly in court about this," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last week when word of the charges surfaced. "The courts to this point have ruled in our favour."
Shortly before the appeal ruling became public Tuesday, Harper told the House of Commons the dispute comes down to a "difference of opinion" on interpretations of the Elections Act.
"We maintain that our people acted under the law as they understood it at the time," Harper said. "When it was clear that Elections Canada had changed its interpretation of the law, this party had already adjusted its practices in the 2008 election campaign."
In the civil case, the party argued the chief electoral officer had no authority to refuse to give rebates to candidates even if he found their expense claims dubious.
However, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled the Conservative party's interpretation "would weaken compliance with the limits set by Parliament on the amount of money that candidates may spend on their election and can recover by way of reimbursement from public funds."
"Abuses could well proliferate and the statutory objective of promoting a healthy democracy through levelling the electoral playing field (be) undermined," said the ruling.
A spokesman for the elections watchdog said "the decision preserves the integrity of the political financing regime which ensures fairness in the electoral system."
Conservative spokesman Fred DeLorey said the party "will be appealing" the ruling and continued to maintain it is an "administrative dispute."
Such rulings cannot be automatically appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada; the party must seek leave to appeal.
The disputed expenses were claimed as local advertising by 67 Tory candidates.
Elections Canada maintains the scheme allowed the national party to exceed its spending limit by more than $1 million, while letting candidates claim rebates on expenses they hadn't actually incurred.
Spokesman John Enright said the agency appealed the case in order to "promote responsible management and payment of public funds and protect the money and interests of Canadians."
— The Canadian Press