TORONTO — As he prepares to hand over the reins of Ontario's Progressive Conservatives this weekend, the party's interim leader said he's managed to clean up the mess left by his predecessor Patrick Brown.
Vic Fedeli had previously vowed to "root out the rot" from within Tory ranks and in his last speech to caucus as interim leader Tuesday morning, he said he has achieved his goal.
"While there will always be more work to be done, today I can confidently give our party a clean bill of health," he said, adding the party's IT system, which was hacked late last year, has been updated and excessive spending has been brought under control.
The Tories have spent the last few weeks trying to close the door on the unprecedented chaos triggered by Brown's resignation in late January, which stirred tensions within the party and exposed allegations of mismanagement, fraud and bullying — all ahead of a spring election.
The party eventually reopened candidate nominations in two contested ridings, though some grassroots members have called for more nominations to be reconsidered.
Many of those issues have nonetheless continued to bubble up as the party gets ready to choose a new leader, and have often been brought up by the four candidates competing for the job.
In an interview with The Canadian Press on Tuesday, Fedeli denied he will be handing over a divided party in need of major reform, as some critics and candidates have suggested.
"I know that our party will unite behind the new leader and I have said today that the state of our party is strong," he said. "All the pieces that we need to win an election are in place."
Asked whether he regrets highlighting the "rot" in his own party, Fedeli said he stands by his earlier assessment.
"I think that being open and transparent about the state of our party was the right message at the right time," he said, pointing to an increase in donations and volunteers since.
"People are refreshed by an honest, open and transparent approach."
However, Fedeli declined to explain what had led to a significant discrepancy in membership numbers — the Tories found they had roughly 67,000 fewer members than the 200,000 claimed by Brown — saying only that the party was continuing to assess the situation.
Fedeli's assessment of the party's state was called into question by both the governing Liberals and the New Democrats, who said the party is clearly in no shape to govern itself, much less the province.
"A month has passed since Fedeli's pledge and the Conservative party still faces allegations from its own grassroots of cheating and other fraudulent activities," the Liberals said in a statement.
"If the Conservatives can't even manage a leadership contest or transparent and democratic nominations, how can Ontarians have any confidence in their ability to manage a province?"
New Democrat Cindy Forster echoed that sentiment, saying the Tories "need to get their house in order."
Fedeli's comments come as party members are voting online for a new leader to replace Brown, who stepped down amid sexual misconduct allegations that he denies.
Some of the four candidates running for the party leadership have raised concerns about the voting system, saying many members have not yet received the documents required for them to cast a ballot.
They have also sounded the alarm about potential membership fraud, but the party says it is aware of their concerns and is working to ensure the voting process remains secure and accessible to all members.
Former Tory legislator Christine Elliott, lawyer Caroline Mulroney, former Toronto city councillor Doug Ford, and parental rights advocate Tanya Granic Allen are competing to be the next Progressive Conservative leader.
The winner will be announced on Saturday.
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press