Springwater committee commences legal proceedings against mayor
Former Springwater deputy mayor Dan McLean confers with his lawyer Jack Siegel before last Friday’s compliance audit committee hearing -Kate Harries photo
By Kate Harries AWARE News Network
The Springwater Compliance Audit Committee has decided to start legal proceedings against Springwater Mayor Bill French regarding his 2014 campaign election expenses.
Chair Robert Barlow read out the decision at a public hearing in Springwater council chambers Friday, after receiving a second audit, from Froese Forensic Partners, that found $80 less in unreported expenses than an initial audit that the committee had rejected, from Grant Thornton.
The auditor found French’s total campaign expenses totalled $15,214.72, within the campaign spending limit of $20,363.90.
Ken Froese appeared before the committee to explain his firm’s report. He listed three categories of contraventions that are of concern under the Municipal Elections Act.
– whether a candidate had an unfair advantage, for instance by going over his spending limit;
– whether there has been transparency, for instance were contributions misapplied to different contributors to conceal influence from one party;
– whether the candidate acted with integrity.
Froese did not identify any apparent contraventions as falling into the three categories. As an example, he referred to four cash contributions – two for $100, two for $50 – that should not have been accepted, as the legislation only allows cash donations of up to $25. But, he noted, the cash was photocopied and a name attributed to it. “It wasn’t an attempt to conceal the identity of the contributor, it wasn’t putting them over the limit, and it wasn’t giving an unfair advantage,” Froese said. “Sloppy might be a fair word for it… So there’s a whole bunch of apparent contraventions that don’t fit into those categories. They can be oversights, they can be interpretations of the act, they can be mistakes, they can be misunderstandings.”
“I would assume from your report they are contraventions of the act, correct?” Barlow asked.
“They are apparent contraventions of the act,” Froese replied.
The compliance audit process provides for an auditor to identify “apparent” contraventions of the legislation, for the committee to decide whether they are serious enough to warrant legal action, and if so, to direct that a prosecutor be appointed.
In reading the decision, Barlow said: “the committee finds that the apparent contraventions – failing to pay campaign expenses, issue proper contribution receipts, accept contributions in apparent contraventions of the MEA 1996, and file accurate financial statements all of which including others detailed in the auditor’s report, and required by the MEA, are serious in nature, and essential to protect the integrity and public confidence in the democratic process.”
The decision came after committee members Barlow, Colin McLarty and George Wodoslawsky met behind closed doors for two hours with their lawyer Jody Johnson following a 75-minute public hearing in which they heard from the auditors as well as lawyers for French and former Springwater Deputy Mayor Dan McLean, whose complaint about French’s finances launched the compliance audit process.
The auditor rejected three of McLean’s six complaints, related to articles in the Springwater News, payment for campaign office space and the value of French’s brochures.
The auditor identified as apparent contraventions a missing $169.50 invoice related to internet hosting, failure to issue a receipt for a $250 in-kind donation from Genesis 2, and failure to include the value of borrowed used stakes ($105.75 to $148.05). Other issues included the four cash donations, the use by French’s official agent, his wife, of her credit card for campaign expenses (the amounts were reported) without prompt reimbursement from the campaign account.
At the end of Froese’s comments. the committee had only one question for him. It was asked by Wodoslawsky. “This newspaper, the Springwater News, is this funded by the township, do you know?” he asked.
“I understand it’s privately owned,” Froese replied. Wodoslawsky, like Barlow an Oro-Medonte resident, has not been present for a number of the committee’s meetings.
In his submissions, McLean’s lawyer Jack Siegel suggested that Froese had made an “error in law” by failing to find that the Springwater News, in running the letters from French, did not provide advertising. He noted that publisher Mike Jacobs refused to publish a letter from former mayor Linda Collins (that she has been unable to locate, the audit report states) and claimed that this constituted a changing of the rules in French’s favour.
It appears that this incident followed a September 25, 2014 announcement in the newspaper that there would be restrictions on letters “due to the tone” of those received. “If you want to mention an issue, you may do so. You may not mention a candidate’s name and if you do we have the right to edit or reject the letter,” the Springwater News announcement stated.
Renata Austin, representing French, started to address the advertising issue raised by Siegel, when she was interrupted by Barlow, who told her there was a 10-minute time limit on submissions. Siegel had been allowed to speak uninterrupted for 25 minutes.
Austin was allowed to continue and in the end spoke for a similar length of time. An auditor offers an opinion, not a legal decision, she told the committee, and cannot be found to have made an error in law. It is up to a court to make any legal finding.
There were some 20 people in attendance when Barlow delivered the decision on behalf of the committee. The reaction was muted. French’s face turned to stone, as he was watched intently from the back row of the chamber by Don Allen, the deputy mayor who is running against him for mayor in the current 2018 municipal election.
McLean quickly rose and left. “I’m glad it’s over, “ he said outside the chamber. “My part in it is.”
In an interview later, he said he was satisfied with the audit and the report although “I am not convinced that everything was addressed.”
Asked if his legal costs come close to French’s, which the mayor has said is close to $50,000, McLean said yes. He said he is getting financial help from others whom he would not name. He would not say how much help, “I have a lot of skin in the game,” let’s put it that way,” he said. He also said he has not yet decided whether to run in the coming election.
French’s wife Lorraine said in an interview that they are getting no assistance in paying their legal bills, in fact they are taking out loans. She said Bill has asked her many times since the audit began whether he should back off. “I say absolutely not,” she said. “We are a team and I stand by him.”
AWARE Simcoe vice-chair Sandy Agnew, who attended Friday’s hearing, expressed regret at the result. “After witnessing the actions of the compliance audit committee it seems obvious that they are intent on punishing Bill French, using a few minor errors in his financial reporting even though he is still well under the spending limit.
“This was a huge injustice that ignored the evidence, clearly confirmed by the second audit, that Bill had no intent to deceive or gain any unfair advantage. Our view is that during his term of office he has taken principled action for the environment and against sprawl. This has made him a target.
“For me it raises questions about the impartiality of the members of this committee. The cost to the taxpayers is well beyond the benefit.”
At last check, the township had spent close to $200,000 – with the second audit, the bill could be headed for a quarter of a million dollars.
In a statement emailed to the Springwater News, Allen lambasted French for failing to have “shown the respect and attention to the legislation and process that each councillor is required to do.” He said French made errors in judgment, like signing the audit engagement letter and seeking a judicial review of the committee’s refusal to consider the Grant Thornton audit. “For this, the township has had to incur expenses related to this of over $250,000 of taxpayers’ money. It is on him and it is inexcusable,” Allen said.
French said he is seeking re-election as mayor because he believes he can do the best job in standing up to those who try to take advantage of the municipality. “Follow the money,” is his comment on the 3-year compliance audit saga.
Kate Harries is a member of the board of AWARE Simcoe, which endorsed French’s candidacy for mayor in 2014. She can be reached at email@example.com.