Cheng on collision course with election spending rules

One of London's front-running mayoral candidates has already put 40 per cent more of his own money into his campaign than the $25,000 limit allowed by law, a move that could put him in jeopardy if he wins the top job, provincial and civic election officials say.

One of London’s front-running mayoral candidates has already put 40 per cent more of his own money into his campaign than the $25,000 limit allowed by law, a move that could put him in jeopardy if he wins the top job, provincial and civic election officials say.

Paul Cheng admits he’s spent about $10,000 more out of his pocket for his campaign than Ontario’s civic election law allows.

But Cheng says he plans to pay himself back from future donor campaign contributions, which he says will leave him at or below the personal spending limit for a candidate.

An official with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Cathy Saunders, the London city clerk overseeing the local election, agree Ontario’s Municipal Elections Act isn’t clear on whether a candidate can exceed the personal spending limit and recover the excess from campaign donations.

But while the law, whose enforcement depends on a complaint being filed, may be a little hazy, the optics are not, a veteran local politics-watcher says.

“It puts him in a difficult situation. It would cause some embarrassment if he won. He would start his mayoralty under a cloud. It would not be a good start,” said Andrew Sancton, a retired Western University political scientist and specialist in local government.

“The tricky thing is, when will he be paid back? What if he is not paid back? It would cast a shadow,” said Sancton.

Cheng’s spending opens the door to a complaint if he wins, and possible legal action, and he could even be removed from office, ministry spokesperson Lee Alderson wrote by email Thursday.

But Cheng, who’s worked as a self-employed energy consultant and was runner-up in the last mayoral election, is adamant he’s in the clear.

“I can make a loan; it can be repaid,” he said of the $10,000 he admits he’s overspent.

“I can advance the money and then after the closing period, the public can contribute. There will be money coming in. I have lent to my own campaign.”

He insists he’s studied the elections law, as has his “bookkeeper,” and is on safe ground.

Not so fast, Saunders cautions.

“The Act is not clear on that aspect of it. I can tell you both the provincial guide and candidate information speaks to that only in very general terms.”

“There are penalties. He could be in violation,” she said

A complaint would go to a local, three-member election audit committee that would decide whether further action is needed.

If a candidate is found in violation, punishment could range from a $25,000 fine to being removed from office to six months in jail, according to the ministry.

“If there is a complaint they have over-contributed to their campaign, it could be a violation of the Act and it is up to the audit committee if it goes to a judge,” said Saunders.

Cheng said he’s receiving strong financial support and he’s confident he will take in the $10,000 from donations.

“I have spoken with businesses and individuals. They told me they will get the money to me, so I can spend it. I think we will. It is not very much,” he said.

During the last election in 2014, which Mayor Matt Brown won, Cheng spent more than $120,000 of his own money on his campaign.

Candidates have to file financial statements to the city by March 29, 2019.

“An elector who believes that a candidate may have contravened a campaign finance provision of the Act may apply for a compliance audit of the candidate’s campaign finances,” Alderson wrote.

“Any person may also take legal action against a candidate on their own, without having first obtained a compliance audit.”

Ultimately, municipalities are responsible for enforcing the Municipal Elections Act. Anyone with questions or concerns about campaign or election activities should contact their municipal clerk.

“Enforcement of these provisions is done through the courts. A person may wish to take steps to commence a prosecution with respect to an alleged contravention of an election campaign finance provision,” Alderson wrote.
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