Rejected Conservative leadership hopeful demands to be let back into race as party defends vetting process

OTTAWA—Toronto lawyer Joel Etienne is demanding to be allowed back into the Conservative party leadership race, and is urging the party to explain exactly why it rejected his candidacy.

In a nine-page appeal of his disqualification, Etienne blasts organizers of the federal leadership contest for allegedly throwing up numerous roadblocks to his campaign, and insists he was in compliance with the rules every step of the way — including raising all of the money required, and then some.

“The qualifying criteria in this campaign for a noncareer politician were incredibly arduous to say the least,” his campaign wrote in its appeal.

“Our campaign never complained — not once.”

Etienne, a past candidate for the party in York Centre, alleges the trouble began when he sat down for his interview with the leadership election organizing committee, known as LEOC.

It was a hostile process, he said, which he did not find entirely unusual. But when he challenged why it seemed the party was so convinced he had “skeletons” in his closet, the answer surprised him.

“The matter that was put to Mr. Etienne by LEOC was that his lifelong human rights work defending the persecuted Chinese Falun Gong community against the vagaries of the Chinese Communist Party would cause problems for the party in terms of the party’s electability with Canadians of Chinese heritage and origin,” says the formal appeal of his disqualification to the party’s dispute resolution committee.

A copy of his argument was obtained by the Star.

Etienne declined to comment.

He was approved to run for the party after that interview, but was one of three candidates disqualified despite believing they had met Friday’s deadline to fulfil all of the entry requirements: a $200,000 fee, a $100,000 refundable compliance deposit, and 500 signatures in support of their bid from 30 ridings in seven different provinces or territories.

The other two are Saskatchewan businessman Joseph Bourgault and B.C. businessman Grant Abraham. Both have said they are also seeking more answers and may consider filing appeals.

Facing mounting pressure from all three campaigns to explain exactly why the men were disqualified, the party took the unusual step late Wednesday night of circulating a report laying out LEOC’s positions.

“There has been some news reporting on the close of nominations and some of that reporting has been, as one might expect, sensationalistic and even misleading,” LEOC chair Ian Brodie wrote in the report, obtained by the Star.

“So, I would like to use this opportunity to report on how we got to the list of six verified candidates.”

In his report, Brodie said the only step in the process where LEOC had leeway to disqualify a candidate was after the original interview.

If they passed that, then all were given an equal chance to get on the ballot if they followed the rules.

While the report did not address specific candidates or issues, Brodie highlighted the fact that entry fees paid through donations may be disallowed if the donor has already exceeded the annual cap under the Elections Act, and loans being used to pay fees must also be scrutinized to ensure they comply with the law.

Campaigns were required to actually raise more than the entry fee, because the party takes a cut of all the donations used to cover it, and many campaigns also want to allow for error.

Etienne and Bourgault have both claimed they had raised enough to cover off the fees.

But Brodie also noted that candidates who filed their paperwork with time to spare in turn had time to make adjustments, but those who filed at the last minute didn’t have that ability.

Bourgault and Abraham were helped across the finish line in part by the anti-abortion group Campaign Life Coalition, which circulated an email to its supporters Wednesday accusing the party of disqualifying the men because of their socially conservative positions.

“No one — not a single candidate — was disallowed because of their views or positions on any issue,” wrote Brodie, who once served as former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff.

“But, like everything else in life, an early start matters and late entrants run the risk of simply running out of time.”

Brodie said the party is following up with all disqualified candidates to ensure they know what happened in their particular case, but it will take time.

What he won’t do is release the reasons publicly, nor respond to media inquiries.

“My former boss, Stephen Harper, taught me that the easiest way for a Conservative to get into the news is to attack another Conservative,” he wrote.

“Everyone who put their name forward for the leadership is a Party member and deserves our admiration for entering the public fray.”

As part of his appeal, Etienne is asking for full disclosure of the issue with his application, as well as an outside audit of how the party applied the rules in the case of his donations and signatures.

But in his appeal, he also suggests politics were at play and urged the party to reconsider.

“Please don’t guide yourselves with petty calculus wondering what composition of candidates on the ballot would help your favourite candidate reach a successful outcome,” he wrote.

“Please operate from the fiduciary trust that Canadians have bestowed upon you, the moral trust of ensuring that the Conservative party, and Canadians have an opportunity to enjoy the fruits and benefits of democracy.”

The six candidates are next required to show up at a pair of official leadership debates later this month. They have until June 3 to sell memberships and the party will announce its new leader on Sept. 10.

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