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Dean Del Mastro testifies in his own defence at election overspending trial

MP Dean Del Mastro arrives at court with wife Kelly in Peterborough, Ont., on June 23, 2014. Independent MP Dean Del Mastro is expected to take the stand in his own defence today at his election spending trial in Peterborough, Ont. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of overspending during the 2008 campaign, failing to report a personal contribution of $21,000 to his own campaign and knowingly submitting a falsified document. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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MP Dean Del Mastro arrives at court with wife Kelly in Peterborough, Ont., on June 23, 2014. Independent MP Dean Del Mastro is expected to take the stand in his own defence today at his election spending trial in Peterborough, Ont. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of overspending during the 2008 campaign, failing to report a personal contribution of $21,000 to his own campaign and knowingly submitting a falsified document. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

PETERBOROUGH, Ont. - Dean Del Mastro finally spoke out in his own defence Wednesday, telling his election-overspending trial that he never asked a data-consulting firm to conduct the voter ID calls that are at the core of the Election Act charges against him.

Indeed, the former Conservative MP — once the Harper government's chief defender against partisan claims of voter fraud, now a chastened Independent — painted a decidedly different picture of the events leading to the allegations that he exceeded spending limits in his 2008 re-election campaign.

Del Mastro, who represents the Ontario riding of Peterborough, described his interactions with Frank Hall, president of the now-defunct Holinshed Research, which provided the services the Crown alleges pushed Del Mastro over the spending threshold.

Hall, the Crown's key witness, had testified that Del Mastro asked him to provide voter identification and get-out-the-vote calling services for the 2008 campaign after the MP learned he'd been excluded from the so-called "blue plan" — a centralized Conservative party program offering similar services in select ridings.

Del Mastro's lawyer, Jeffrey Ayotte, brought his client back to the phone call which Hall said initiated those services.

"You heard him give evidence that in September, just after the writ was dropped in 2008, he got — in his words — a 'panicked' call from you indicating you had dropped from the blue plan, indicating you needed voter ID work. Do you agree that happened?" Ayotte asked.

"I entirely disagree," Del Mastro declared flatly. "That's simply not true, in my recollection of that telephone call."

Del Mastro was part of the "blue plan" during the 2006 campaign, he explained, but didn't find it particularly helpful, opting instead to use his own volunteers to target would-be Conservative supporters.

He learned long before the vote was called two years later that his riding would not be part of the centralized program for the 2008 campaign, he added.

"The fact that you were not going to be part of the blue program and you knew that, what if any steps did you take to replace that?" Ayotte asked.

"We didn't take any steps to replace that," Del Mastro replied. "We decided we would take responsibility (for) that ourselves."

Del Mastro went on to note that he did have a phone conversation with Hall in September 2008, but it was about riding mapping software being developed by Hall's company.

The program, called GeoVote, was to identify the political leanings of riding residents and was designed to work with data from the Conservative party's own database — the Constituent Information Management System, or CIMS.

"We had discussions about purchasing GeoVote as a companion system to CIMS," said Del Mastro.

"I asked him if the software was going to be available during the '08 campaign. Frank indicated to me that they were working on it ... but that it may or may not be ready."

But GeoVote never ended up working for his campaign in 2008, he added.

Del Mastro's lawyer has already suggested that his client's personal payment to Holinshed — a key part of Elections Canada's case against the Peterborough MP — was for GeoVote, not voter ID call services.

The defence will try to convince the court that because the money was spent on GeoVote, it ought not to have counted against Del Mastro's campaign spending limit.

That particular element of the defence came into focus earlier Wednesday when Del Mastro's former senior adviser, Alan Wilson, testified about the Peterborough Conservative Electoral District Association's dealings with Holinshed.

Wilson said he thought Del Mastro had only paid the firm for GeoVote, and no other services.

He also said the Peterborough EDA, of which he is now the president, had "at one point in time" paid for a portion of GeoVote.

"What is your understanding that Holinshed had been paid for?"Ayotte asked.

"For GeoVote," Wilson answered.

The Crown alleges Del Mastro paid the firm for its voter identification and get-out-the-vote calling services from a personal account, thereby exceeding a limit on personal contributions for the election campaign.

The Crown has also alleged Del Mastro tried to cover up the overspending by using backdated invoices to make it appear Holinshed had only charged a fraction of the overall cost during the election period.

Del Mastro has pleaded not guilty to charges of overspending during the 2008 campaign, failing to report a personal contribution of $21,000 to his own campaign and knowingly submitting a falsified document.

He left the Conservative caucus in September 2013 and has maintained his innocence throughout the trial, which is now in its third week.

His testimony continues Thursday.

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