Election donor acquitted
November 24, 2006
Tender Choice Foods has been acquitted of making illegal donations to the 2003 election campaign of Larry Di Ianni. The charges were laid and prosecuted by Dundas bookseller Joanna Chapman in relation to a donation by Pasquale Smith to the 2003 Larry Di Ianni campaign.
Chapman brought private charges against eighteen contributors to Di Ianni’s campaign, fifteen of which acknowledged their over-donations and agreed to make charitable donations in return for withdrawal of the charges. Tender Choice Foods, however, elected to take the matter to trial where Chapman’s lawyer Eric Gillespie acted as the prosecutor.
Di Ianni’s sworn election report in March 2004 showed a $750 contribution from Pasquale Smith and a second $750 from Pasquale Paletta, as well as a $150 donation from Paletta International Corporation, all of which had the same Burlington address shared by Tender Choice Foods.
Chapman flagged the first donation as questionable after calling the company and being told no one by the name of Pasquale Smith worked there. In a subsequent financial statement filed a year later, the Di Ianni campaign indicated the Pasquale Smith gift was actually a corporate cheque from Tender Choice Foods, and that the Pasquale Paletta donation was also a corporate cheque from Paletta International Inc.
But Justice of the Peace Lillian Ross ruled yesterday that “no evidence was provided by the prosecution with respect to shares and shareholdings” to prove that Tender Choice and Paletta International were associated corporations.
In the October 10 hearing, Gillespie had presented copies of two refund cheques issued by Di Ianni, and also offered copies of the two original $750 donation cheques to the court. The latter were both written on the same day and appear to have been signed by the same two individuals.
He also presented the court with the report of compliance auditor Ken Froese, and pointed to the statement that “Pasquale Smith and Pasquale Paletta were incorrectly captured on the original financial statements and were correctly recorded as Paletta International Corporation and Tender Choice Foods in the final statements. They were associated companies and were refunded their over-contribution prior to the filing of the final financial statement.”
Tender Choice Foods lawyer Stephen Chisholm countered that Froese should have been in court to present this evidence so he could be cross-examined and that Gillespie had failed to present any evidence of actual ownership of the two companies and therefore couldn't conclude they are associated within the definition of the Muncipal Elections Act.
Gillespie had countered the it is not possible to obtain the shareholding information for private companies and that to accept Chisholm's argument would “lead to a legal absurdity” where it would be impossible to prevent associated companies from making multiple election donations.
In her judgement, Ross noted Gillespie’s contention of “the tremendous commonality between the two corporations in terms of management structure, the board of directors and officers of the companies.” However she concluded that the association had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
“Evidence to support commonality between the corporations is not sufficient if it does not provide evidence that includes share structure or ownership since this is an essential element of the offence,” Ross concluded.
The court decision is likely to fuel widespread demands for reforms to the Municipal Elections Act. The legislation specifically forbids combined donations over $750 from associated corporations, and empowers citizens like Chapman to challenge improper contributions. But the Act does not indicate how either citizens or candidates could determine whether or not companies are associated when their ownership information is not public.
Justice of the Peace Ross is a former Conservative MPP. She won the Hamilton West seat in 1995 as part of the Mike Harris province wide victory, but was defeated in the 1999 election by Liberal Judy Marsales. The provincial Attorney General appointed her a Justice of the Peace in October 2002. Records of her 1999 campaign finances show a $500 donation from Paletta International.