Former Ontario cabinet minister Ted McMeekin feels bad for Jim Karygiannis, but not for introducing campaign law reforms that got Karygiannis turfed from Toronto city council.
“I feel sorry for the guy. He runs, he gets elected — but you’ve got to follow the rules right?” said McMseekin, municipal affairs minister from 2014 to 2016, in an interview Friday from his home in Hamilton.
“The issue is we had people running for municipal councils who had big (campaign) surpluses and they were buying Rolex watches and other gifts for some of their campaign workers, and lavish parties for their faithful followers.
“With that kind of abuse so apparent, the government of the day felt it incumbent on them to bring in sensible rules,” said McMeekin, a Liberal defeated in the 2018 election.
Karygiannis, first elected to Toronto council in 2015, was removed him from office Wednesday by city clerk Ulli Watkiss. She cited a financial statement he submitted for his 2018 election in Ward 22 Scarborough-Agincourt that suggests he overspent his campaign limit by almost $26,000.
Ontario’s Municipal Elections Act “does not give the City Clerk any latitude or discretion on this matter,” Watkiss said in a statement. “Mr. Karygiannis is in default of the Act and is disqualified from being elected or appointed to any office until after the 2022 municipal election.”
Karygiannis calls the matter a “clerical error” and is vowing to fight to get back on council.
At issue is a $27,083.50 expense for a dinner Karygiannis hosted for supporters on Dec. 21, 2018 — two months after the election — at an upscale restaurant in Thornhill. Receipts show the actual dinner cost just over $4,000. Other expenses include more than $20,000 for consulting fees and $1,700 for silver-foil invitations and other printed materials.
Elections Act reforms passed in 2016 introduced a strict spending limit on parties held on or after election night, and other “expressions of appreciation” made to campaign staff and volunteers.
Candidates can spend no more than 10 per cent of their total campaign spending cap on such gratuities. Filing a campaign expense statement that shows an overspending of that limit results in immediate ejection from office, with a ban on running again until after the next civic election.
“It is a blunt instrument,” McMeekin acknowledged. “But before (the reforms) we were aware of municipal audit committees who would take a lax interpretation of the rules, and there was a fear council members could get a friend to forgive the fact they didn’t follow the rules.”
Karygiannis appears to be the first local councillor in Ontario summarily ejected under the revised rules — but he is not the first to face questions over post-election spending.
Hamilton Councillor Tom Jackson’s 2014 campaign spent $24,172 for a post-election party and “appreciation” expenses. They included gift cards for volunteers, liquor and chocolates, the Hamilton Spectator reported.
The city’s election compliance audit committee confirmed one party-related filing violation but accepted the councillor’s efforts after the fact to either explain or fix mistakes by providing missing information. The committee decided an audit wasn’t warranted, the Spectator reported.
Campaign expenses are paid political donors. In Toronto those expenses are heavily subsidized by city coffers, with donors getting a rebate on 75 per cent of contributions up to a limit.
The rebate program is subsidized by campaign surpluses that, by law, candidates must return to the city.
Jack Siegel, a lawyer and municipal law expert, said the intent of the legislative change was clear to those who advise and represent candidates.
“This (campaign money) is taxpayer money,” he said. “If you blow it on a party where everybody gets an open bar with the finest of liquors and a $250 gift certificate for Costco, it’s not a reasonable gesture of appreciation — that’s what the legislation is trying to capture here.”
A strange wrinkle remains, however. Candidates such as Karygiannis who file an expense statement clearly showing they overspent their limit are subject to immediate ejection from office.
Candidates who file statements that don’t show overspending, but who are subject to a complaint to Toronto’s compliance audit committee, and later found by an audit to have overspent, are treated differently.
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In that case, the compliance audit committee can vote to take no action — as it did with Rob Ford’s mayoral campaign overspending in 2014 — or refer the matter to prosecution.
Even if a judge finds the candidate violated the Municipal Election Act by overspending their campaign limit, the judge can rule it an honest mistake and spare them ejection from office.
That’s what happened with then-councillor Giorgio Mammoliti in 2014.
“It’s strange,” Siegel said. “That person who says, ‘Here’s the problem and I admit to it,’ is subject to political capital punishment,” while a candidate who initially denies wrongdoing might pay a lesser price.