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Lawyer linked to Ontario education union attack ads went on government-led trade mission

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WATCH ABOVE: With teachers’ strikes in Ontario all week long, the PR battle over education is now taking centre stage in Canada’s largest newspapers and questions are being raised about the group behind an ad campaign launched over the weekend. Travis Dhanraj has more. (Feb. 3)

Global News has confirmed Quinto Annibale, a lawyer at Loopstra Nixon LLP, travelled to India on an Ontario government-led trade mission last year.

Annibale is linked to now a now-infamous ad campaign aimed at teachers’ unions published earlier in February.

The advertisements were published by a group calling itself Vaughan Working Families. The ads accuse teachers’ union leaders of using children as “pawns” in tense, ongoing contract talks that have led to rotating strikes across the province.

READ MORE: NDP legislator calls for investigation of newspaper ads criticizing teachers’ unions

Annibale posed in photos found on social media next to Economic Development and Trade Minister Vic Fedeli while on the India trip.

On Thursday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce admitted knowing Annibale but said he had absolutely no involvement in the ad campaign.

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Annibale, who is a longtime Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario donor, incorporated Vaughan Working Families in April 2018.

Ontario’s official Opposition called for an investigation into the advertisements that ran in three national newspapers in early February, asking the province’s elections watchdog to determine if they break the law.

Ontario NDP MPP and ethics critic Taras Natyshak alleged in a recent letter to Elections Ontario that the full-page advertisements violate the province’s election spending rules because the ads come at a time when two byelections are underway in Ottawa-area ridings.

Natyshak said the advertisements mimic government speaking points and alleged supporters of the Progressive Conservative government may have purchased them, but provided no evidence to support that claim.

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“It’s becoming clearer just how close Mr. Annibale is with the PC Party. He’s not just a supporter — he’s an insider and a travel companion,” Natyshak told Global News Thursday evening.

“It’s less and less believable that the Ford government didn’t know it was their pal who placed these ads to help spread their message.”

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, accused the Ontario government of “continu[ing] to try to operate in secrecy.”

“It was already deeply troubling to have an anonymous group pay for attack ads exactly mirroring Minister Lecce’s talking points, further exacerbating a difficult climate,” he said in a statement Thursday evening.

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“The indications of close connections between the Ford government and Quinto Annibale demand that complete transparency be brought to this situation.”

READ MORE: Ontario’s 4 teachers’ unions are engaged in job actions. Here’s what they’re fighting for

Allan Ritchie, a managing partner with Loopstra Nixon LLP, spoke with Global News Thursday evening in response to the trip.

“No other lawyer or staff member of the law firm was on that trip. All flights and accommodations were paid for by the trip’s participants,” Ritchie said, adding the firm reimbursed Annibale for the expenses.

Global News contacted Ontario government representatives for comment on this story, but they declined. Annibale was not reachable for comment.

— With files from The Canadian Press