- UPDATE: Conservative Party strikes 1,351 memberships from voting list
Reality TV star and Tory leadership candidate Kevin O'Leary is alleging "widespread vote rigging" in the contest to replace Stephen Harper as the next permanent leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.
O'Leary made the accusations in a statement released Thursday in which he accuses "backroom organizers" of using prepaid credit cards to sign up "fake members."
"It has been brought to my campaign's attention that there are backroom organizers who are committing widespread vote rigging and potentially breaking our electoral and financing laws to try to buy a leadership victory," O'Leary said in the statement.
The Shark Tank star said that the party has strict rules requiring all memberships to be purchased with personal cheques or credit cards, but "activists" are playing the system.
"We have been informed that to get around these rules, campaign activists are using untraceable prepaid credit cards to sign up fake members, possibly without these individuals even knowing about it," he said.
"Beyond the legalities of this, it is completely immoral, and extremely unfair to the tens of thousands of real party members that will have the impact of their votes weakened."
O'Leary said his team has raised the issue with the Conservative Party and has been reassured that an investigation is underway, but he wants the party to go further.
O'Leary also made the allegations in a series of tweets.
"One thing the party must do now is state categorically that it will not accept any memberships that have been purchased with a prepaid credit card, and that any already submitted will be removed from the membership list, and will not be sent a ballot," he said.
Cory Hann, director of communications for the Conservative Party, said he is aware of the allegations and is looking into it through the party's "verification process."
"Any memberships obtained contrary to the rules will be struck from our membership list and ineligible to vote," said Hann in a statement.
"Our leadership race is and will continue to be fair for all candidates. Our rules are clear, any person looking to join our party must do so by paying the membership fee out of their own pocket, and we will ensure that principle is followed."
Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose stressed the party has a sound voting process that does not easily lend itself to fraud.
All voters submitting their ballots by mail are required to send a photocopy of their photo ID, she noted.
"Look, nobody can vote unless they've paid for their own membership," she said in an interview with CBC Radio's The House. "There's a whole list of requirements ... it's very easy to spot these kinds of anomalies. Right now the party is looking into it."
The Conservative Party said late Friday that 1,351 memberships were struck from its voting list after an investigation found they were found to have been purchased inappropriately.
'O'Leary is a loser:' Bernier
O'Leary did not name any of his rivals for the leadership in his letter.
Hann clarified Friday saying that — despite some media reports suggesting Maxime Bernier's campaign is the subject of an internal probe — the party is not investigating any one candidate but is rather "reviewing general membership purchases."
But Bernier, seen by many as one of the leaders in the race, addressed O'Leary's accusations in a letter to supporters Friday morning. Bernier said O'Leary was simply attempting to divert attention away from his "losing" campaign.
"Kevin O'Leary is losing. He knows my campaign has raised more money, signed up more members, has more supporters, and more volunteers. He's a bad candidate. Instead of trying to win people over by putting out a platform, he's throwing mud to try to save his campaign," Bernier said.
The Quebec MP also referenced the considerable amount of time O'Leary spends in the U.S., even while running for the Tory leadership.
"While I've been building an army of supporters, he's been vacationing in Florida, filming in LA, and shilling on a home shopping channel trying to sell his line of O'Leary wine to American buyers. It's not even available in Canada.
"Kevin O'Leary is a loser. I'm a winner."
Lisa Raitt echoed O'Leary's call for an investigation but other contenders for the leadership seemed unsympathetic.
Andrew Saxton and Rick Peterson challenged O'Leary, who has participated in just two leadership debates, to participate in future debates if he's so concerned about promoting democracy.
Kellie Leitch suggested it's a bit rich for O'Leary "to cast aspersions on the other candidates in this race without a shred of evidence" when he's the only candidate who's been fined by the party — for refusing to attend a bilingual debate in Edmonton.
"You need to put up or shut up Kevin," she tweeted.
Brad Trost also called on O'Leary to provide proof of his allegations, immediately and publicly.
"If this is nothing but a publicity stunt and Mr. O'Leary has no evidence, then he should be sanctioned to the greatest extent possible by the party," Trost said.