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Trudeau fires back in lawsuit, says blocked candidate author of own misfortune

OTTAWA - Justin Trudeau maintains a would-be candidate who was barred from running for the Liberal party has only herself to blame for any damage to her reputation.

Christine Innes last month launched a $1.5 million libel suit against the Liberal leader and his Ontario campaign co-chair David MacNaughton, after she was blocked from running in the Trinity-Spadina byelection over alleged bullying and intimidation tactics employed by her campaign team.

In a statement of defence filed in court, lawyers for Trudeau and MacNaughton say any damage to Innes' reputation was "a direct result of her own conduct" and that of her campaign team, including her husband, former Liberal MP Tony Ianno.

According to the statement of defence, Innes was repeatedly warned — by top Trudeau adviser Gerald Butts, Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett and MacNaughton —that her team's aggressive tactics were unacceptable and must stop. Innes denied the allegations and dismissed their concerns, the statement says.

Trudeau and MacNaughton are "of the settled view" that "Innes bears ultimate responsibility for the conduct of her campaign team," it adds.

The statement includes copies of written complaints received by the party from three unidentified young volunteers, who claimed they'd been bullied or pressured by Ianno.

They complained about receiving calls in which Ianno allegedly warned they'd have little future in the party if they didn't support Innes. He also allegedly bad-mouthed Trudeau and Toronto Centre MP Chrystia Freeland, whom Innes was evidently preparing to eventually challenge for the Liberal nomination in University-Rosedale under redrawn riding boundaries for the 2015 election.

Even after Innes was barred from seeking the Liberal nomination in Trinity-Spadina for the byelection or in any other riding for the general election, at least one of the young volunteers "continued to be bullied by people associated with Innes' now-defunct campaign," the statement of defence alleges.

"He was pressured to recant his previous complaint ... He has also been pressured to assert that the LPC (Liberal Party of Canada) had pressured him into making his complaint, which it had not.

"This volunteer has changed his telephone number in response to the continuing pressure tactics by or on behalf of the Innes campaign team."

The statement of defence contrasts the naive, inexperienced youths with Innes, who is "perceived as a Liberal with influence," and Ianno, who is "also well known within the party and generally as a person who is willing to use aggressive tactics in order to succeed in politics."

However, Innes maintains the allegations of bullying and intimidation were a "smokescreen" to hide the real reason she was barred from running: her refusal to promise she wouldn't challenge Freeland, one of Trudeau's hand-picked star recruits.

Trudeau and MacNaughton "deliberately sacrificed Innes' reputation in order to create a smokescreen to shield Trudeau from public outcry for breaching his public vow of non-interference in local riding nominations," her lawyers argued in a statement of claim filed in court last month.

None of the allegations by either side has been tested in court.

In an interview Wednesday, Innes lawyer David Sterns said Trudeau's statement of defence is "chock-a-block full of innuendo," based on flimsy complaints from anonymous volunteers, some of which "doesn't even pass the giggle test."

"This is all muck-raking."

The names of the complainants must be provided if Innes is to properly defend herself against her accusers, Sterns said.

But even accepting the anonymous volunteers' version of events, Sterns said: "I fail to see how any of this remotely constitutes bullying or intimidation."

The alleged conversations between Ianno and the youths seem like "the kind of conversation that probably goes on every day in every campaign: 'I want you to join my campaign. Why should you join my campaign? My campaign's better than someone else's campaign.'"

In the statement of defence, Trudeau and MacNaughton maintain their allegedly defamatory comments about Innes' blocked candidacy were fair, truthful comment on a matter of public interest.

They ask that Innes' lawsuit be dismissed "with costs on a substantial indemnity basis."

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