Two London, Ont., men are facing charges under the Municipal Elections Act following an OPP investigation stemming from the city’s 2018 election.
On Wednesday, OPP announced that members of its Anti-Rackets Branch had charged Randy Warden, 60, of London with failing to identify himself on election campaign advertising.
Warden is a former council candidate from London’s 2018 election who sought to represent Ward 5. He lost the seat to Ward 5 Coun. Maureen Cassidy, who was elected to council for another term.
OPP have also charged Barry Phillips, 56, of London with failing to register as a third-party advertiser.
In June of last year, Phillips admitted to commissioning local PR firm Blackridge Strategy to create a website that targeted then-Ward 10 incumbent Virginia Ridley during the election.
Ward 10 Coun. Paul Van Meerbergen, who won the seat over Ridley, was linked to the website in January after local PR firm Blackridge Strategy released an alleged invoice to the councillor for “Attack ads against Virginia Ridley.”
A day after the invoice was released, Van Meerbergen denied the allegations, telling reporters, “I can say with absolute assurance our campaign had nothing do to with these websites.”
The allegations against Van Meerbergen have not been proven in court and OPP told Global News it does not plan on laying any additional charges following its investigation into the election.
Documents released by Blackridge at the time also suggested the firm was paid by Warden to create the website that targeted Cassidy.
The new charges stem from a scandal that first came to light during London’s 2018 municipal election, when Cassidy and Ridley, both of whom were up for re-election at the time, voiced concern after fake websites, made to look like their own, began targeting the candidates.
The website targeting Cassidy said she couldn’t be trusted, citing her high-profile affair with former mayor Matt Brown.
The website that targeted Ridley described her as a “colossal spendthrift” and “greedy.” It also accused her of child abuse for bringing her son to a lengthy budget meeting.
The OPP investigation stems from a complaint filed by John Hassan, a retired firefighter who formerly served as president of the London Professional Fire Fighters Association.
Hassan said he was prompted to file a complaint into London’s 2018 election after seeing media attention surrounding the malicious websites that targeted Cassidy and Ridley.
“At some point, someone took (my complaint) serious enough to say ‘there is something here’,” said Hassan.
Hassan described the laying of the charges as good news for election integrity, as well as a sort of vindication for the work Cassidy, Ridley and London lawyer Susan Toth put in to exposing the malicious websites.
“I think we need to have transparency… we need to have faith in the electoral process and in the people we elect,” said Hassan.
“This helps, in my mind, shore that up.”
Andrew Sancton, a retired political science professor from Western University, described the laying of the charges as a big event for London politics and anyone else who follows municipal elections, as such charges aren’t laid often.
Sancton told Global News it may warrant increased attention to the Municipal Elections Act by those involved in future campaigns.
“People are just going to be very careful, they’re not going to put up signs that aren’t attributed to a particular campaign,” Sancton said.
“I think particularly incumbent councillors will be paying attention too, because it would be a much more serious matter if an incumbent councillor had been actually prosecuted for one of these violations.”
The municipal expert added that the charges also spell good news for those looking to get involved in city politics.
“This whole affair would’ve been discouraging to many candidates, particularly women, but the good news is the people who allegedly did this are being held to account,” Sancton said.
OPP Staff Sgt. Kerry Schmidt told Global News the year-long investigation was launched following a request from the London Police Service.
“They asked us to assist them in this investigation. There were allegations of third-party advertising violations contrary to the Municipal Elections Act,” Schmidt said.
“At this point, there are no other grounds to lay any other charges… as far as the OPP and Anti-Rackets Branch is concerned, this investigation is complete.”
Warden and Phillips are scheduled to appear in a London courthouse on Sept. 28.