The Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario is facing calls for investigation from Elections Ontario and the Ontario Provincial Police for fundraising appeals that critics charge are deceitful and raise concerns about fraud.
Some Ontarians started to receive fundraising letters from the PCPO this week that were packaged as invoices that the recipient had to pay. The letters were sent in envelopes marked "invoice enclosed" and contained a letter headlined "invoice." But they are not invoices at all and are instead fundraising appeals, sparking concerns that some people will not know the difference.
The letters, which were set for varying amounts including $300, $800 and $1,000, were distributed to some PC donors earlier this week. "PLEASE PAY THE ENCLOSED INVOICE TO SEND DOUG FORD THE CLEAR MESSAGE THAT WE'VE GOT HIS BACK," one letter stated in all-caps text. They were signed by Tony Miele, the chair of the PC Ontario Fund.
Beware of this. They’re just hoping that lots of unsuspecting people, particularly the elderly will get scared and pay these invoices. @fordnation what the hell are you doing? This has to be illegal. pic.twitter.com/CIUOZ7QNvi
— Vicki Campbell 🇨🇦 (@merry123459) August 17, 2021
The Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario declined to respond to multiple requests for comment on the issue over two days, including whether the letters were genuinely from the party, whether they meet the letter of the law, and whether the missives match the ethical standards of the party. Other questions asked included who approved the letters and how the party developed this way to solicit donations.
The premier's office declined to immediately respond to the issue.
Gregory Gies, a Kingston-based financial planner who is on the PC donor list, received one such "invoice" yesterday. "I feel it's unethical and it's disingenuous," he told QP Briefing. Gies hasn't donated to the PCs since before the Tim Hudak leadership.
"It's kind of like fundraising through subterfuge," he said, voluntarily drawing a parallel to tactics used by the 2020 Donald Trump campaign that saw some supporters unwittingly donate much more than they thought they had signed up for due to deceptive practices.
Gies argued that even if this practice is legal, it should not be, as it could trick some people who might not notice what the mailer is asking for. And besides, he added, it speaks lowly of a party's integrity. "My view is why would I give money to a party and support them if they're misleading me in fundraising. They're certainly going to mislead me in power."
Only $300? Look at ours: pic.twitter.com/kZpLzuwWEv
— Laura 🇨🇦 (@LJDYGK) August 17, 2021
Opposition critics called on institutions to take the mailing seriously and investigate the matter fully.
The Liberal Party of Ontario was first off the mark, calling on the OPP to investigate in coordination with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre to determine if there are grounds for criminal charges, and on Elections Ontario to look into the matter as well.
The Liberals referred to the "invoices" as an "apparent scam."
"People are already struggling financially thanks to the pandemic. The Conservatives' apparent attempt to potentially scam vulnerable people out of what little money they have left is despicable," stated Ontario Liberal Party President Brian Johns.
The NDP wrote to Elections Ontario requesting an investigation. "It is deeply concerning that the premier would authorize a fundraising letter created to deliberately confuse or alarm vulnerable individuals into a donation to his campaign," wrote NDP MPP Taras Natyshak to Chief Electoral Officer Greg Essensa.
"I ask that you review the attached correspondence to determine if it violates the Elections Act and hold the PC Party and the premier responsible," he continued, referring to a photo of a letter that solicited $300 packaged as an invoice.
Elections Ontario did not respond to whether it would investigate the issue, in keeping with its policy.
"Elections Ontario does not comment on whether or not it has received a complaint or whether or not it is investigating a matter. Elections Ontario regulates provincial elections in Ontario under the Election Act and the Election Finances Act. Neither Act regulates the content of campaign or fundraising materials, or the content of political advertising," spokesperson Eleni Armenakis told QP Briefing.
The address on the letters referred payments to be sent to 90 Eglinton Ave. W., Suite 300 in Toronto. That's the office of fundraising and direct marketing company the Responsive Marketing Group, which has worked with the PCs and Conservatives previously.
That includes involvement in the robocalls scandal from the federal 2011 election, which was designed to suppress votes by telling some voters that their polling station had changed. RMG CEO Andrew Langhorne did not respond to a request for comment.