New documents show Van Meerbergen, Warden paid for attack websites

Paul Van Meerbergen. (Photo courtesy of the City of London)

Councilor Paul Van Meerbergen and failed Ward 5 candidate Randy Warden paid a local political consulting firm to create smear campaigns against their opponents in the 2018 municipal election, newly released documents show.

The anonymous websites and lawn signs attacked Ward 5 Councilor Maureen Cassidy and former Ward 10 Councillor Virgina Ridley. Documents from Blackridge Strategy obtained through a court order were released by Cassidy and Ridley’s lawyer Susan Toth on Monday.

The documents include an invoice that showed Van Meerbergen paid Blackridge $1,320 for the creation of “attack ads against Ridley” and an “anonymous website.”

However, Van Meerbergen has claimed the invoice is a fake.

“I can assure you that I did not receive this invoice and I did not pay it,” he said in an email to BlackburnNews.com. “The invoice is a complete fabrication. The explanation for it lies with the firm who produced it.”

But a spokesperson for Blackridge Strategy has denied Van Meerbergen’s assertion about the invoice.

“All material that was submitted per the court order is legitimate,” said Laura Blondeau, communications director for Blackridge Strategy. “All revenue that we incur as a company, we must account for in keeping with our CRA obligations.”

A contract and email and text exchanges between Warden and Blackridge partner Amir Farahi show discussions between the two pertaining to the anonymous online smear campaign against Cassidy. In a screenshot of a text conversation, Farahi tells Warden he will be “setting up the Maureen website.”

“[Cassidy] campaigned on a platform of integrity. In my opinion, this is a great vulnerability for her,” Warden noted in an email exchange with Farahi.

The websites attacked Cassidy and Ridley’s voting records on council and took aim at their personal lives. Ridley, in particular, was accused of child abuse for taking her son to a budget debate in 2016. Attacks against Cassidy called her integrity into question.

In April of last year, Toth obtained a Superior Court Order against the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, GoDaddy, Medium, Wix.com, and Facebook Canada forcing them to reveal that the websites were registered by Farahi. Another court order was issued in December 2019, requiring Blackridge to turn over detailed client information related to the two websites and two Facebook pages.

“This has been a long process for my family and I, and having the information and making it available to the public finishes this chapter and allows us to move on to the next,” Ridley said in a statement.

She added that she hopes this process will deter these types of “dirty tricks to deceive voters and spread misinformation” in the future.

“The truth always prevails. Bully tactics will not be allowed to determine who throws their hat into the ring and who doesn’t. I hope that today we’ve proven that,” said Cassidy.

Van Meerbergen previously denied any knowledge of the website stating he has “never taken the approach of trying to run down the opponent.” One of his campaign volunteers later took responsibility for the site against Ridley, stating he used his own money to pay for it.

Warden said last June he was unaware of the website until it was in the public domain and learned after that the attack was undertaken by “agents or volunteers” with his campaign. He did say he felt some responsibility, but the documents released Monday show the sentence “I accept full ownership” was removed from his statement before it was released following email discussions with Blackridge.

Toth has indicated her clients are considering lawsuits against Van Meerbergen and Warden.