PETERBOROUGH, Ont. - A member of Parliament once tasked with defending the Harper Conservatives against voter fraud allegations goes on trial Monday, accused of overspending during the 2008 federal election campaign.
Former Conservative Dean Del Mastro pleaded not guilty last month to charges under the Canada Elections Act.
Del Mastro, who now sits in the House of Commons as an independent MP and insists he did nothing wrong, is also charged with failing to report a personal contribution of $21,000 to his own campaign.
Elections Canada also alleges that Del Mastro tried to cover up his overspending by knowingly submitting a falsified document.
The trial before an Ontario provincial court judge in Peterborough, Ont., is currently scheduled to last a little more than two weeks, beginning with the presentation of evidence from prosecutors.
Del Mastro's lawyer, Jeffrey Ayotte, declined to comment on the case against his client Friday, saying he'll save his remarks for the trial.
Richard McCarthy, Del Mastro's official agent for the 2008 campaign, is being tried at the same time on three charges, including "incurring election expenses in an amount more than the election expenses limit."
McCarthy's lawyer, David McFadden, also entered a not guilty plea last month on McCarthy's behalf.
A nearly two-year investigation into Del Mastro's 2008 election campaign focused on the $21,000 payment he made to a consulting firm from his personal account, which did not appear on his official campaign return and which would have put him over the campaign spending limit.
The maximum candidates are allowed to contribute to their own campaigns is $2,100.
As the prime minister's parliamentary secretary during the robocalls affair, it was Del Mastro's job to fend off allegations against the Conservatives of voter fraud in the 2011 campaign.
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But he has been in political limbo since his tearful resignation from the Conservative caucus after being charged in September 2013.
Del Mastro stands accused of paying Ottawa-based Holinshed Research $21,000 for work on his 2008 campaign.
It is alleged that he paid Holinshed using a personal cheque from an account he shares with his wife, but failed to include the amount in his election campaign financial report.
That report listed Holinshed as having been paid $1,575.
Investigators have also claimed that a false document was filed by the Del Mastro campaign, indicating that $10,000 of the $21,000 paid from the Del Mastro chequing account had been refunded by Holinshed.
Del Mastro has suggested publicly that Elections Canada has unfairly targeted him, charging that sealed court documents were leaked to the media by the agency.
And he said he rejected an offer from Elections Canada of a reduced penalty in exchange for a guilty plea.
If found guilty, Del Mastro and McCarthy could each face fines of $1,000 and one year behind bars.
But even though a conviction under the Elections Act would not prevent Del Mastro from running for office again — he has said he intends to run in the next federal election — it would reinforce opposition claims that the Harper Conservatives don't respect Canada's election laws.
The Liberals and New Democrats hammered the Tories after the party was found guilty of violating election spending laws in the 2006 "in and out" scheme and agreed to repay more than $230,000.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has also publicly defended Del Mastro for his honourable service to his constituents.
That, say the New Democrats, is a clear indication of how the Tories would rather go after their opponents than play by the rules.
"Time and time again Conservatives have broken rules, and when they get caught, they attack the referee — something we saw this spring when they went after Elections Canada," said NDP caucus spokeswoman Greta Levy.
"Mr. Del Mastro is someone that the prime minister chose as his parliamentary secretary, someone he continued to defend even after he was accused."
The Peterborough Conservative riding association has reportedly put the party's nomination process on hold pending the outcome of the Del Mastro case.
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