Conservative MP Brad Trost could find himself in hot water with the House of Commons ethics commissioner in the wake of a fundraising campaign he’s initiated to help cover his legal bills in a legal action against his own party, according to two lawyers with expertise in the area.
Moreover, those donations will help Trost, an MP who has often described himself as proudly on the far right of Canada’s conservative movement, pay the fees of a lawyer on his legal team who happens to be the president of a downtown Toronto federal Liberal riding association.
Trost has asked an Ontario Superior Court judge for a judicial review of a decision made by the Conservative leadership race organizers to fine his campaign $50,000 for allegedly leaking the Conservative membership list to a third party. Trost denies his campaign did any such thing and he wants the party to return the $50,000 to his campaign.
The matter was in court as recently as Friday when the Conservative Party lawyer, Arthur Hamilton, asked Justice Markus Koehnen to throw out the application. Koehnen reserved his decision.
Trost himself launched the review and, as such, he’ll have to cover any legal fees. He launched a fundraising campaign last month to help him with those fees.
In a Feb. 18 letter obtained by Global News that appears to have been sent to his leadership campaign supporters, Trost claims it was “rogue party operatives themselves who committed the offence” of leaking the membership list.
Then he makes a pitch to his supporters for two things.
Firstly, he asks his supporters to “pray that our team is granted the strength and the wisdom necessary to be successful.” Evangelical Christians were a significant and formidable force for Trost in the leadership race. He finished fourth in the race, which was ultimately won by Andrew Scheer.
Secondly, he asks his supporters for a financial donation to his “legal fund.” This donation would fall outside federal campaign contribution limits, a fact Trost underlines in his fundraising letter.
“There is no limit on who (or what entity — corporate donations are allowed) can contribute or how much,” Trost wrote in the letter. In other words, unlike federal elections or federal leadership campaigns, corporations, unions, or other non-governmental organizations could donate to Trost’s legal fund.
The donations, Trost explained, would be collected by BlueCommittee.Org Inc., a federal corporation created in August 2016.
Trost directed questions to Joseph Ben-Ami, Trost’s leadership campaign manager and one of the directors of BlueCommitee.Org.
Ben-Ami said Trost’s campaign team checked with Elections Canada about the scheme to set up a fund to help pay Trost’s bills and were given no cautions. Ben-Ami also said there is no intention to disclose the identity of the donors to Trost’s legal fund.
Ben-Ami said he has not consulted with the House of Commons Privacy and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion.
Two lawyers consulted by Global News, though, say Trost’s legal fund may bring Dion’s scrutiny.
Giorno, a former chief of staff to Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, played a key role in crafting the Conflict of Interest Act. Siegel has acted as the lawyer for the Liberal Party of Canada several times over the last decade.
Giorno said MPs are allowed to set up legal defence funds but, under the act and code, Trost will be required to report the identity of any individual who or entity which donates more than $200 to his fund.
“People are free to give and he is free to receive but it’s a benefit subject to all of those rules,” Giorno said in a telephone interview Monday.
He does not believe the commissioner will allow Trost to simply declare that the donations came from BlueCommittee.org Inc. if each individual donation is intended to help Trost. “That doesn’t change the fact. These are still benefits by the donors to the individual (MP).”
Siegel, too, said that the conflict of interest code covers a situation in which an MP seeks donations for his own legal bills.
Moreover, the members conflict-of-interest code would require Trost to recuse himself from any Parliamentary debate involving those who provided his legal fund with more than $200.
“It does seem to me that there’s a potential problem, given the multiplicity of contributors,” Siegel said.
Giorno also noted that, depending on who Trost’s donors are, the Lobbying Commissioner may have an interest. Lobbyists are prohibited from providing gifts or benefits to those public officer holders for whom they are registered to lobby.
Speaking on behalf of Trost, Ben-Ami said, “We don’t see any issue. It’s never been a question.”
In any event, Trost is seeking funds to cover the bills he’ll incur for hiring a team at Toronto based firm Stockwoods LLP.
One of the lawyers acting for Trost is Stephen Aylward, who happens to be the chairman of the Liberal riding association in University—Rosedale, the riding held by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.
Andrea Gonsalves is the senior lawyer on the case and it was Gonsalves who brought Aylward on to the team, Ben-Ami said. Ben-Ami said they had no objection to Aylward’s addition to the legal team. The firm, Stockwoods, had been recommended to the Trost team for its expertise in this particular area of law.
“Nobody’s political credentials in this were an issue. It never occurred to us to ask nor, frankly, would we have anyway,” Ben-Ami said Sunday in a telephone interview.
And yet, Aylward’s presence on Trost’s legal team adds an odd mix to this dispute. If Trost prevails and succeeds in forcing the party to, at the very least, review the decision to fine him $50,000, it will be mostly because Aylward and Gonsalves will have convinced the court that the Conservative Party itself could have been negligent in protecting its membership list.
“On their choice of lawyer and his ties to the Liberal Party, that’s probably a better question for the Trost leadership campaign,” said Conservative Party spokesman Cory Hann.
Trost’s decision to take his own party to court is believed to be a first. And while Trost remains a member of the national Conservative caucus — he has been an MP since 2004 — he has no riding to run in for the 2019 general election, having recently lost a nomination fight in the riding he currently holds, Saskatoon—University.