03/20/2017 12:59 EDT

Conservative Leadership Race 2017: Raitt Calls For Expulsion Of Candidates Who Break Rules

The leadership hopeful says cheating accusations are hurting the race's legitimacy.

Conservative leadership challenger Lisa Raitt says any candidate found to break the party's rules should be be kicked out of the race.

Raitt, who is vying to replace interim leader Rona Ambrose, said on Monday that accusations of vote-rigging and inappropriate membership purchases are undermining the legitimacy of the contest.

"The whole point about being a leader is you're responsible for whatever happens,” she told The Huffington Post Canada.

Conservative leadership hopeful Lisa Raitt called for the explusion of any candidate who breaks the party's rules. (Photo: Codie McLachlan/The Canadian Press)

"The rules are written so that we're responsible for our campaign."

Raitt said the leadership race’s chief returning officer should sanction any candidate caught cheating. Breaking the rules “makes a mockery of their commitments and corrupts the process," she said.

The Ontario MP's call comes as leadership candidates Maxime Bernier and Kevin O'Leary — perceived to be front-runners in the race so far — wage a war of words that includes allegations of membership fraud.

The skirmish between the two candidates began last week after O'Leary called on the party to open an investigation into "widespread vote rigging" being committed by another leadership campaign.

Bernier denied the accusations and bashed O'Leary as a desperate "loser" last week.

An investigation was launched and resulted in findings that supported O'Leary's claims.

Kevin O'Leary claimed there was "widespread vote rigging" in the leadership race. (Photo: The Canadian Press)

The party found 1,351 memberships were purchased through two IP addresses and not paid for by each individual as required under party rules, which require memberships to be purchased by personal credit card or cheque.

Those memberships, the party said, were cancelled and the individuals are no longer eligible to vote in the leadership contest.

Party spokesman Cory Hann told HuffPost on Friday it isn't possible to determine which leadership campaign or campaigns were involved since the memberships were purchased anonymously through the party's website.

“Review is complete. The IP address doesn't tell us who did the purchasing,” he wrote in an email.

Allegations are election 'fodder': Raitt

On Sunday, The Globe and Mail reported that O'Leary campaign organizer Ron Chatha is being accused of offering to pay for party memberships. The allegation is based on a sworn affidavit — given to the paper by Bernier's campaign — signed by six individuals. Bernier’s campaign declined to share the affidavit.

O'Leary's camp denied the report, saying in a statement they were "disappointed that the whistleblower who [initially] brought to light the issue of vote buying is being harassed for doing the right thing."

Chatha was the first one to flag allegations Bernier organizers were using prepaid credit cards to sign up members of the Tamil community without their consent, O’Leary's campaign said.

“Thirteen hundred and fifty-one [fraudulent memberships] is an awful lot of people.”

— Lisa Raitt

Hann told HuffPost Monday the party has not received the reported affidavits and therefore had “nothing new to review.” He added: “The party regularly reviews memberships using a variety of measures that can include calling members individually, and we will continue to ensure all our rules are followed.”

Raitt said the entire saga shows a need to validate every new membership in the party with a third party audit.

"Thirteen hundred and fifty-one [fraudulent memberships] is an awful lot of people," she told HuffPost.

"The funny part is, this is all just fodder for the next election. It continues this notion that we're cheaters. Our leadership race has to be absolutely, scrupulously clean."

Maxime Bernier speaks during the Conservative leadership debate at the Maclab Theatre in Edmonton on Feb. 28. (Photo: Codie McLachlan/The Canadian Press)

She called out O'Leary and Bernier for engaging in a "public brawl" that didn't help the cause of Conservatives.

"This is ridiculous. Let the party investigate it and let's clear everybody else."

Meanwhile, fellow leadership hopeful Michael Chong says the episode shows why he is pushing for free memberships in the Conservative Party.

"We desperately need to reform political parties in Canada. Going to free memberships and public registration of party membership eliminates all the voter fraud because you no longer have the game of people improperly paying for party memberships," Chong told HuffPost.

Political parties still largely operate like "private clubs" as they did in the 19th century, Chong said. He's proposing that Canadians get the option to register at tax time for one of the federal parties, with those lists forming the basis of future leadership contests.

While Chong says he does not have any information about the membership irregularities, he supports the party's investigation of the allegations.

"I think they should continue to ensure that all the new memberships signed up are above-board and if there are any that are not, they should take action," he said.

"Every hotly contested party nomination, regardless of party, every leadership contest there are allegations of voter fraud. This has been going on for decades and it's high-time that we reform political parties to move them away from the model of being 19th century private clubs to being the modern political institutions that they are. They're public institutions. They're publicly paid for through the tax credits and subsidies that we get so they have to be a lot more open and transparent."

The Conservatives elect their new leader in May though a preferential ballot. The results will be announced on May 27.

With files from Ryan Maloney and The Canadian Press

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