The war of words between the campaign teams of Conservative leadership candidates Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole over a claim that MacKay’s team stole confidential campaign data continues to heat up — and some party strategists are warning that the brawl threatens the Conservative brand itself.
“A sleepy leadership [race] has gotten bizarre and gone possibly to a precarious place for the Conservative Party,” said Conservative strategist and pundit Tim Powers.
“There are no long-term winners when the apparent second-place candidate in the race calls the cops on the first-place candidate’s team. The only one with a smile is Justin Trudeau.”
O’Toole claimed on Friday evening that MacKay campaign organizer Jamie Lall was involved in the “theft of confidential O’Toole campaign data and strategy.”
Lall quickly responded to the allegations on Twitter with the statement: “Not a single word of this is true.” He is still a volunteer with the MacKay campaign.
Jamie Ellerton, a former Conservative Party senior staffer and strategist, said the conflict threatens to convince party supporters to tune out the leadership campaign.
“Conservatives want to be seen as different and when you hear criminal investigations being tied to the activity of a leadership campaign — whether that was rogue volunteer or coordinated senior operative — no one wants to be involved with that,” he said.
“It will be turning away people from the process who are already uninspired …”
Ellerton suggested that MacKay would suffer most from a diminished turnout, arguing that the race is a close one and the former attorney general’s support is relatively soft.
Earlier this week, the RCMP said that it is looking into the O’Toole camp’s allegation. The Toronto Police Service confirmed that “an investigation into mischief in relation to the data is ongoing and we are working with colleagues from the RCMP.”
The O’Toole camp says at least three police investigators have been assigned to the probe. It’s calling on MacKay’s team to do its own internal investigation of the matter — something MacKay’s people have not committed to so far.
O’Toole claimed Friday evening that Lall was involved in the “theft of confidential O’Toole campaign data and strategy,” including “Zoom video conferences … confidential campaign strategy video conferences” and recordings of video conferences with Conservative Party members.
According to a letter from O’Toole’s campaign to the RCMP, OPP and the Toronto Police Service, the O’Toole team claims it first discovered private information was stolen when Radio-Canada published a story on June 15 that contained an excerpt of O’Toole speaking with Quebec social conservatives on a video call.
O’Toole’s people claim Lall obtained an access code from a young summer student who is a MacKay supporter; he has not been named. The student reportedly was working for Calgary Conservative MP Greg McLean, who has endorsed O’Toole for the leadership. McLean fired the student after learning of the allegation.
The O’Toole camp claims the student obtained the code when McLean wanted to post a video from one of O’Toole’s public Zoom calls on social media. They say the staffer contacted O’Toole’s tech people, who provided a password.
The O’Toole team claims the staffer confessed to giving the password to Lall. The team claims O’Toole’s campaign website was accessed by computers in Calgary and in midtown Toronto and campaign information — including strategy documents, training videos and calls between campaign organizers — was downloaded.
A source with the O’Toole camp said they offered to brief MacKay’s lawyer on the allegations but heard nothing but “crickets” in response.
A source in the MacKay camp said no briefing on the specific details was offered to their lawyer.
The source said O’Toole’s campaign director Fred DeLorey sent MacKay’s campaign manager Alex Nuttall a letter on June 20 demanding the return of the campaign material and an internal investigation by MacKay’s people.
In a June 22 email, obtained by CBC News, MacKay’s lawyer John MacDonell asks the O’Toole campaign to pass on the information it gave to police, “including written statements, IP addresses, geo-locations of access points and the details of the documents accessed.”
MacDonell goes on to accuse the O’Toole team of presenting “nothing but allegations. If you would care to share with me the information you say you have given over to police, I would be glad to review it.”
The O’Toole source says O’Toole’s lawyer, Jeffrey Kroeker, responded to MacDonell later on Monday, saying the evidence had been handed over to authorities and that MacKay’s people have enough information to begin their own internal investigation.
“One would think a former attorney general would take an allegation of an indictable offence and a police investigation seriously enough to look into it,” said O’Toole campaign spokesperson Melanie Paradis.
The O’Toole campaign has not shared the police complaint with the MacKay team.
“This is not a civil matter. This is a criminal matter. If someone breaks into your office and robs you, you don’t go to the alleged perpetrators with your evidence. You go to the police,” said O’Toole spokesperson Melanie Paradis.
MacKay’s lawyer has yet to respond to the O’Toole campaign’s request for an internal investigation.
Late Tuesday, MacKay spokesperson Chisholm Pothier said O’Toole’s campaign team had shared its campaign Zoom links, logins and passwords widely with “more than 300 MPs and their political staffers” and with “no reasonable expectation of privacy.”
The O’Toole campaign quickly shot back on Twitter, saying that sharing a link to a public event is not an invitation to access and download confidential campaign information.
“This is a willful attempt at deception. There is a big difference between sending invitees a code for specific meetings and someone breaking into the private admin and stealing all the files. The former is standard operations, the latter is a crime. That is what is being investigated,” DeLorey tweeted.