The crowded Liberal leadership race shrank by one contestant yesterday. But it was Vancouver MP Hedy Fry who halted her campaign, not Toronto MP Joe Volpe, who was the subject of speculation that he would drop out over allegations that he improperly signed up new party members in Quebec.
Fry announced she lacks the resources to hang in and is backing former Ontario premier Bob Rae to replace former prime minister Paul Martin at the December convention in Montreal.
Volpe, describing alleged membership improprieties as anomalies that frequently arise in political campaigns, vowed at a news conference: "I'm staying in the race to win the leadership and to form the next government."
Hours later, similar claims were reported about members allegedly improperly signed up by campaign workers for candidate Michael Ignatieff, a Toronto MP. But Sachin Aggarwal, Ignatieff's director of operations, said such challenges are unsurprising on the eve of the party's delegate selection vote this weekend.
Aggarwal said one allegation that Ignatieff's camp had signed up a man who died two years ago was simply a case of a man who bought a five-year Liberal membership in 2004 and was not struck from membership lists after he died.
Volpe noted the Liberal Party is expected to report this week the findings of an internal party review of allegations of improper party membership recruitment by his campaign. In a news release he said he looked forward to a speedy resolution of the review.
Steve MacKinnon, national director of the Liberal Party, said the party is investigating a complaint by officials in the Quebec riding of Papineau about the validity of about 100 memberships related to the Volpe campaign. He said none of them involved dead people as far as he is aware.
Among the allegations are that members of the Volpe campaign paid for party memberships. Individuals are supposed to pay for their own memberships.
The findings are likely to be made known this week. Penalties for membership improprieties range from a private reprimand to a public reprimand, a fine or disqualification from the race.
But even if a campaign worker was involved in an impropriety, the candidate may not be held responsible.
MacKinnon said he had received an email from George Kunz, an Ontario Liberal, containing lists of Ignatieff memberships, but it was not determined whether this was an official challenge of their validity and whether a review is warranted. Aggarwal had seen media reports about the complaint but had not received a copy of Kunz's list.
The Toronto Star reported last weekend that more than 70 families contacted from membership lists from the Quebec wing of the party reported problems, most often that they hadn't paid a membership fee. There were two cases where deceased persons received membership cards.
The Star also cited nine cases where interviewees named Volpe's campaign as having paid for memberships.
Citing the Star report, Volpe noted that nine of 34,000 memberships is only a handful of individuals.
In these kinds of contests, and I've been through a number of them, there are always these kinds of allegations but happily we have rules and regulations and procedures to address them," Volpe said.
He added that "it defies logic" that any campaign would be interested in signing up members who are not going to show up to a meeting to elect delegates to support a candidate.
Members are to vote this weekend for delegates to the leadership convention.
Besides Rae, Volpe and Ignatieff, other contenders for the leadership of the party include Gerard Kennedy, former education minister for Ontario; Stephane Dion, former environment minister; Martha Hall Findlay, a Toronto area lawyer; Scott Brison, former public works minister; and Ken Dryden, former social development minister and Canadiens goalie.
Three candidates who dropped out - Fry, Carolyn Bennett and Maurizio Bevilacqua - have thrown their support behind Rae.