City councillor gets legal fees reimbursed

Going against its own legal advice, Toronto city council has voted overwhelmingly to reimburse Ward 35 councillor Adrian Heaps for legal fees stemming from a three-year-old lawsuit.

Ward 30 councillor Paula Fletcher moved on Monday that council pay the outstanding $36,000 balance of Councillor Heaps’  fees, incurred as a result of a defamation suit brought against him in 2007 by Michelle Berardinetti, the candidate whom Heaps had narrowly defeated in the 2006 municipal elections.

City solicitor Anna Kinastowski had advised against reimbursement in a Nov. 30 memo to council. She warned the courts have found “municipal council has no authority to reimburse a member of council for legal expenses incurred in relation to activity engaged in outside of the office of councillor” including activities as candidates prior to becoming councillor.

Council nonetheless voted 21-4 to adopt the motion.

The suit came after a compliance audit complaint was brought by John Lyras, a senior member of Berardinetti’s campaign, against Councillor Heaps regarding improper campagn spending. The complaint was investigated and dismissed as meritless, according to the summary given in the motion that went before city council.

Ward 37 councillor Michael Thompson, who seconded the motion for reimbursement, said he did not think it fair for Heaps to have to go through financial difficulty simply because of being elected councillor.

“He was taken through a legal process where he was found not guilty of any wrongdoing,” Thompson said in a phone interview.

“I think the councillor was put in a very difficult position as a result of being elected councillor. It’s only fair that he be helped. Quite frankly it seemed that this was going to bankrupt him.”

The claim of defamation in the lawsuit is linked to Heaps’ inclusion of a Globe and Mail article endorsing his candidacy in a media kit circulated in the last two days of the campaign. Berardinetti, who also sued the newspaper for libel, alleged that the article by John Barber denigrated her political experience and affected her chances of winning the election.

The lawsuit ended in a settlement after two years of legal proceedings, according to the motion summary, leaving Heaps with a $53,000 legal debt. While some of this has been reduced, the recommendation was that city council reimburse Heaps for the remaining $36,000 outstanding.

“Being aware that he used his personal funds, it made me wonder how I’d feel if it was me, and what policies should be put in place [for councillors] to defend themselves against such frivolous claims,” said Thompson.