Erin O’Toole’s team spent more than $1 million in party funds to set up and run their downtown Ottawa election studio, multiple sources tell Global News.
O’Toole’s pick for the party’s powerful financial board, Conservative Fund chair James Dodds, was aware of the seven-figure expenditures to set up and run the studio over the roughly six months leading to September’s election.
The party’s elected national council was also “advised” of the expenditures “as a part of the (Conservative) Fund’s regular financial reports,” a spokesperson for the Conservatives confirmed.
Around the same time in early 2021 that the party was setting up the studio, O’Toole’s office also used taxpayer funds to purchase roughly $74,000 in “video communication and broadcast equipment,” though O’Toole’s office denied any public funds went into the partisan studio operation.
“Our broadcast studio and its associated working offices and media filing room was one of the many innovative ways we decided to run our campaign. It not only gave us the flexibility to reach tens of thousands of Canadians while recognizing the challenges of travelling during a pandemic, it also meant a smaller national tour cost which allowed us to invest in other key areas of our campaign,” wrote Cory Hann, the Conservatives’ director of communications, in an email to Global News.
“Like with all political parties, election expenses will be disclosed to Elections Canada, and we expect to file ours in the coming weeks.”
O’Toole’s team rented multiple large conference rooms at the Westin Ottawa, a posh downtown hotel within eyeshot of Parliament Hill in the lead up to the 2021 campaign.
The party used the space to set up a fully functional broadcast studio for holding press conferences, hosting tele-town halls, and recording videos and fundraising appeals in the lead up to the 2021 federal election.
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Until now, Conservative party members were not privy to how much the studio cost them.
Multiple sources told Global News that the price tag was north of $1 million. The sources were not authorized to speak on the record, and Global News agreed to protect their identity. The Conservative party would not confirm the total cost of the studio, but a senior party source did not dispute Global’s reporting Thursday.
A senior O’Toole campaign official, who did not have direct knowledge of the final price tag, nevertheless said the cost of the studio was a “significant” amount of the Conservatives’ election budget.
“I would think the cost was significant. We were renting the room for many months. We got a good deal because it’s not like there were any conferences happening (due to COVID-19), so the hotel was happy to get some business,” the source said.
“(But) it would have been a significant cost.”
The broadcast studio was the brainchild of Dan Robertson, O’Toole’s chief strategist during the Conservative leadership race and 2021 general election. Sources told Global News that Robertson advocated for O’Toole to spend more time in the broadcast studio during the campaign. Others on O’Toole’s campaign team argued for the leader to spend more time travelling the country.
Robertson declined Global’s interview request Thursday.
At the same time the party was setting up the Westin broadcast studio, publicly available records show O’Toole’s office spent roughly $74,000 in taxpayer money purchasing “video communication and broadcast equipment.”
A spokesperson for O’Toole’s office said no public money went to setting up the Westin studio.
“Throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, video and broadcasting equipment such as cameras, lights and microphones were purchased and used by the Leader of the Official Opposition and the Conservative caucus to communicate with Canadians and stakeholders virtually,” wrote Josie Sabatino, O’Toole’s director of communications, in a statement to Global News.
According to a Global News analysis of publicly available spending records, O’Toole’s office charged taxpayers $68,998.36 for communications, audio-visual and telecommunications equipment and services in the months after O’Toole became leader.
That number grew to $245,141 around the time the party was setting up the Westin studio, and $122,491.90 in the months leading up to September’s election.
Sources told Global News that the party was also upgrading O’Toole’s West Block offices during those months, in order for the Conservative leader to beam his messages to Canadians during the pandemic.
A senior party source said that the 2021 election campaign tour cost less than in previous election years. According to the party, the 2021 Conservative campaign tour cost the party $3.2 million, compared with $5.2 million in 2019 and $8.7 million in 2015.
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