OTTAWA – Stephen Harper’s spending scandal headaches escaped the confines of the Senate on Thursday as Elections Canada laid charges against the prime minister’s former right-hand man in the House of Commons.
Ontario MP Dean Del Mastro and his former official agent Richard McCarthy face three Canada Elections Act charges in connection with a $21,000 personal cheque Del Mastro wrote to a political consultant shortly before the 2008 campaign.
The two are charged with exceeding the legal election spending limit, filing a campaign return that was false or misleading, and filing a return that omitted required information.
Del Mastro is also charged with exceeding the political contribution limit of $1,000 when he wrote a $21,000 personal cheque that allegedly went to his own campaign. The funds were paid to an Ottawa-based consultant who later did campaign work, but only $1,575 was ultimately claimed on the campaign return.
A conviction under the act can carry fines of between $2,000 and $5,000, a sentence of up to five years in prison, or both.
Del Mastro was Harper’s parliamentary secretary until just last week, when he was shifted to the economic development portfolio. Del Mastro, who represents the riding of Peterborough, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Earlier this year, Del Mastro lashed out at Elections Canada by saying they had conducted their investigation with “malice and contempt,” and has said he is eager to defend himself.
Harper, who was in New York on Thursday to take part in an economic panel discussion, refused to take questions about the charges. But they are sure to come as a blow to a Conservative government still reeling from the fallout over disallowed expense claims made by senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, all of them former members of the Tory caucus.
Former cabinet minister Peter Penashue was forced to leave his post and run in a byelection in 2013 after it was revealed his campaign had received ineligible expenses that were subsequently repaid. He lost his seat to Liberal rival Yvonne Jones.
“In our electoral system, it is fundamentally important the spending and contribution limits enacted by Parliament be respected,” Commissioner of Canada Elections Yves Cote said in a statement.
“It is also essential that the reports and information provided to Elections Canada be accurate and truthful.”
NDP House leader Nathan Cullen said Harper must immediately remove Del Mastro from his position, and kick him out of the Conservative caucus.
“This is an incredibly serious and bad day for the Conservative Party of Canada, yet an important day for Canadian democracy in the defence of Canadian’s ability to vote freely and fairly in our elections,” Cullen said.