MONTREAL — A defeated candidate in the last Côte St. Luc municipal election who claimed to represent the Sephardi community says he is considering appealing a court decision that found him guilty of offering a financial inducement to an opponent, also Sephardi, to drop out of the race.
Quebec Court Judge Johanne White last month found Charles (Chalom) Lugassy violated municipal election law by offering to reimburse the electoral expenses of Sonia Cohen-Peillon if she withdrew from the campaign for the November 2009 election.
Such an act is fraudulent, White wrote.
Lugassy faces losing his right to vote or to seek elected office for five years. He may also be fined up to $1,000.
The charge against Lugassy, who was trying to unseat incumbent Glenn Nashen in District 6, was brought by the Quebec Director-General of Elections.
Cohen-Peillon testified that less than two weeks before the 2009 vote, Lugassy urged her to step aside, saying that, if she did, “we are going to pay you your costs.” She refused.
Her testimony was corroborated by her sister, Michèle Cohen, who told the court that Lugassy also approached her with a similar proposition to relay to her sister.
Lugassy categorically denied that he or anyone among his supporters offered Cohen-Peillon any such inducement, saying it would make no sense, because she was never a serious contender.
Nashen, a longtime councillor, was easily re-elected, with Lugassy garnering about half as many votes, and Cohen-Peillon well behind in third place.
The court heard that a meeting of about 10 leaders of the Côte St. Luc Sephardi community took place at a synagogue on Oct. 19, 2009, where Lugassy and Cohen-Peillon were invited to present their platforms.
Lugassy said there has never been francophone Sephardi representation on the city council, and the leaders of the community, which he estimates now accounts for 40 per cent of Côte St. Luc’s population, did not want to split the vote by having two Sephardi candidates in the same district.
Lugassy claims he was the choice of the Sephardi leaders. Cohen-Peillon, sensing that this was indeed true, declined to go along and continued her campaign.
She testified that on Oct. 18, 2009, she received a phone call from a prominent woman in the Sephardi community who said that Sephardim would not vote for a woman.
White wrote in her 26-page judgment that she found credible the testimonies of Cohen-Peillon and her witnesses, especially her sister, Michèle Cohen, now a member of the Montreal police department’s ethics commission.
The judge dismissed Lugassy’s version of events as “implausible, riddled with outlandish conjectures and not in the least supported by proof.”
Lugassy told The CJN that he thinks that White “completely erred in her judgment.”
His sentencing was set for Nov. 19.
He affirmed, however, that his bid for a seat was motivated by his belief that there should be francophone Sephardi representation on the eight-member city council.
Lugassy charged that anglophone Ashkenazim are jealously guarding a monopoly on power at city hall and that since the last election, there has been a campaign to discredit him for fear that he would run again in 2013 – successfully.
He noted that after the 2009 vote, the city’s director-general of elections issued five notices of infractions, against him. He admitted to one charge – overspending on his campaign by a small amount – while three others were dropped, he said.
The fifth infraction was the allegation that he tried to induce Cohen-Peillon to drop out.
Lugassy filed a written complaint in 2010 with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs that it was a conflict of interest for the city clerk to act as director-general of elections.
Jonathan Shecter was, in effect, an employee answerable to the council, Lugassy said, even though he took a leave to serve as director-general of elections.
Lugassy insists that, even before the Quebec Court ruling, he had no intention of running in the next election, set for November 2013.
Dida Berku, a councillor for 22 years, denied there is any attempt to block Sephardim or any other group from municipal power. She reiterated that “there is no conspiracy or closed shop in Côte St. Luc, nor did we push the director-general to file the complaint.
“All candidates are welcome to run and, in fact, there have been a few Sephardi candidates over the past years.”
She added that it is difficult for anyone to defeat an incumbent.
“Running for council requires a long-term commitment and involvement in civic affairs. It is not just about a short campaign.”
Mayor Anthony Housefather limited his comments on the matter to an emailed response: “I think the judgment speaks for itself. It is about a candidate who was not elected to city council and his actions that were judged to be in violation of Quebec electoral law.
“The city has nothing whatsoever to do with this, and I see nothing I would add, as I have no personal knowledge with respect to any of the issues raised in the judgment.”