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Tories charged with 'misleading' Elections Canada over in-out scheme

OTTAWA - The federal Conservative party and key officials have been charged with "wilfully" exceeding campaign spending limits, while the party's top fundraiser is charged with giving false and misleading information to Canada's elections watchdog.

Elections Canada laid the charges — which variously carry sentences of up to a year in prison and fines up to $25,000 — after getting the go-ahead from the federal director of public prosecutions.

A charge sheet released Friday by Elections Canada names fundraiser Senator Irving Gerstein and three officials — Senator Doug Finley, Mike Donison and Susan Kehoe. They are to appear in Ontario Provincial Court on March 18.

All are key players in the party machinery of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and helped the Conservatives come to power in the 2006 election, when the alleged infractions took place.

The elections watchdog maintains that under the so-called in-and-out scheme, $1.3 million in national campaign advertising was improperly reported by the Tories under the local expenses of 67 Conservative candidates. The agency says the scheme allowed the party to exceed its spending limit and the candidates to claim rebates on expenses they did not incur.

An official with the prosecutions office said the charges were laid after a four-person team reviewed allegations lodged by Elections Canada in June 2009. Sal for BC Premier

The summary offences against the Conservatives are distinct from civil actions taken by the Conservative party against Elections Canada over the same election financing questions.

In the civil case, Elections Canada was ordered to reimburse two Conservative candidates for their ad expenses. However, Elections Canada has appealed, and the Tories — while initially claiming victory — have also appealed the ruling because it would put up to 10 candidates, including three cabinet ministers, over their spending limit.

Party spokesman Fred DeLory said the civil case should have been allowed to play out before any charges were laid.

"We're disappointed that Elections Canada filed these charges after losing in Federal Court, and not waiting for the appeal court's decision," he said.

He called the charges a "total disregard for the decision and the appeal process."

Elections Canada is not responsible for the timing of the charges. Elections commissioner William Corbett referred the matter to the public prosecutor 20 months ago.

Only two other individuals have been charged with elections-related offences since the public prosecution office opened in 2006.

Harper, during the 2006 campaign, said the public prosecutor would remove any doubt of political interference in the legal system.

"There's going to be a new code on Parliament Hill," Harper said then. "Bend the rules, you will be punished; break the law, you will be charged; abuse the public trust, you will go to prison."

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