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Councillor cuts ties with London firm caught up in ‘fake website’ scandal involving 2018 election opponent

Councillor Paul van Meerbergen during a committee meeting in 2018.
Councillor Paul van Meerbergen during a committee meeting in 2018. Matthew Trevithick/980 CFPL

Coun. Paul van Meerbergen is the latest London politician to denounce Blackridge Strategy following the release of court documents that connect the firm’s co-founder, Amir Farahi, to two websites created in the names of Virginia Ridley and Maureen Cassidy, both of whom were incumbent councillors during London’s 2018 municipal election.

The documents were released on Thursday and show that virginiaridley.ca and maureencassidy.ca had been registered to someone named Amir Farahi before being transferred to someone by the name of Ronald Young on Oct. 3, 2018.

READ MORE: Websites targeting incumbent London councillors during 2018 election registered to 2 men — court documents

Van Meerbergen, who was defeated by Ridley in the 2014 election, regained his council seat in 2018. When speaking with Global News Radio 980 CFPL on Friday, he stressed that he has no personal connection to the websites.

“I have a clear and a very distinct history of running campaigns in London which are issues-based. I never engage in running down opponents or personality politics,” he said.

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“And as we can recall from the last election, there were several or at least a couple of very big issues, including BRT, that were enough to run a campaign on without having to worry about fake websites that maybe 30 or 40 people click onto.”

Van Meerbergen also told Global News Radio 980 CFPL that he only learned of the story on Friday.

“This came out yesterday. I was away on company business for my other job and then came back last night, we had a family birthday so, to be honest, I didn’t even know anything about what was brewing,” he said.

“I come in this morning and I absolutely cannot believe the kind of media treatment, particularly in the London Free Press, with this bogus story about somehow … because I happen to live in Ward 10, I’m somehow involved in a fake website.”

Van Meerbergen added that now there is “concrete evidence,” he will no longer work with Blackridge Strategy.

READ MORE: 2 London councillors up for re-election decry misinformation websites created in their name

The councillor was one of several candidates to work with the firm, including Mayor Ed Holder, who issued a statement on Thursday confirming he would not work with the company again in any capacity.

Coun. Josh Morgan also announced that he cut ties with Blackridge last fall when he first heard of the possibility of a connection between Farahi and the websites.

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“At that time, I had absolutely no evidence one way or the other. All I could control was the actions that my campaign team and I could take. It was really in support of Maureen and Virginia,” he told Global News Radio 980 CFPL.

“Virginia has been a close friend and an excellent colleague, and supporting her was really important to me.”

Former mayoral candidate Paul Paolatto says the case involving Ridley and Cassidy has encouraged him to consider legal action as he pursues whoever is responsible for a website set up to mimic his own website.

“This person was attacking me simply because I was exchanging ideas in the marketplace and trying to mock them,” Paolatto said.

“They also, actually, proceeded to try to sabotage my identity and represent themselves as me so they opened up a Twitter account with my name on it, they used an email address so that people thought they were talking to me when they weren’t.”

Paolatto said he has been able to uncover partial email addresses and part of a cellphone number, but he will be directing his own legal team to dig deeper.

“We’re going to be pursuing this with great vigour, and (Susan Toth, a lawyer representing Cassidy and Ridley) wrote a road map for us so this is going to be helpful for us in perusing this matter, and I look forward to getting a similar outcome,” he said.

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Global News Radio 980 CFPL has reached out to Farahi and Blackridge Strategy for comment on the matter but has not received a response.