08/09/2013 20:25 EDT | Updated 10/09/2013 05:12 EDT

Election-law charges loom against ex-councillor Peter Li Preti

A former Toronto city councillor is one step closer to being prosecuted on allegations that he accepted illegal corporate donations and overshot his campaign spending limit in the 2010 municipal elections.

An independent city committee voted Friday to pursue charges under the Municipal Elections Act against Peter Li Preti, who served as a councillor for Ward 7 and then Ward 8 from 1998 to 2006, and before that as a councillor in the former city of North York.

“This is a no-brainer,” said Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler, an elections activist who was one of the complainants against Li Preti.

“You’ve got a politician … who apparently received $21,000 in corporate donations, and it is abundantly clear that corporations are not permitted to donate in municipal elections in Toronto.”

Li Preti lost the 2010 contest in Ward 8 to incumbent councillor Anthony Perruzza by 352 votes.

Election finances audited

An audit of Li Preti's election finances found that he overspent his campaign limit by $2,108 and he accepted 46 corporate donations totalling $21,000.

The auditors viewed the donations as a violation of Toronto’s ban on corporate contributions to election campaigns, but Li Preti maintains that they were all really donations from individuals who merely used their corporate chequebooks to send the money.

"You can legally accept corporate donations if they are identified as personal donations," Li Preti said in an interview Friday afternoon. "But [the auditors] failed to go beyond and ask, 'Did you make a personal donation through your corporate cheque?''

Li Preti added that after the auditors produced their report, he was able to obtain documentation that shows he did not also overspend his campaign limit.

A judge will likely rule on those issues at a trial after the City of Toronto’s compliance audit committee voted to commence legal proceedings against Li Preti, including possibly hiring an outside lawyer to serve as prosecutor.

Mammoliti charged for overspending

It’s the second time this year the three-member committee has voted to prosecute a municipal politician for apparent election-law breaches during the 2010 campaign.

In February the panel opted to plow ahead with possible charges against Ward 7 Coun. Giorgio Mammoliti, after an audit found he overspent his campaign limit by 44 per cent.

Three weeks later, the same committee declined to pursue charges against Mayor Rob Ford, whose election audit determined he overspent his cap by three per cent.

That voting record shows there’s a double standard in his case, Li Preti said, that has turned the proceedings against him into a “political farce” and “character assassination.”

“Ford was similar to mine. There were very similar issues — three to five per cent overspending, acceptance of corporate contributions — but they did not recommend prosecution,” Li Preti said.

“I don’t think that I’ve misled anybody. I don’t think I tried to hide anything.”

Chaleff-Freudenthaler said, however, that the Li Preti case is a “really important” one that will ”set the tone for how, as a society, we feel about our politicians seemingly breaking the law.”

“There is a catastrophic consequence if he is not convicted of these alleged breaches,” Chaleff-Freudenthaler said.

“It would just become the Wild West, because then people would be allowed to manipulate completely, in all sorts of ways, the law against corporate donations.”

It could be months before a prosecutor is appointed and any elections-act charges are filed.