MONTREAL - Opposition leaders accused Stephen Harper's Tories of manipulating the public and cheating in the 2006 federal election campaign as the Conservatives were hammered Monday over newly revealed allegations of election overspending.

Accusing the Tories of an attempted cover-up, Liberal Leader Stephane Dion said Harper has a lot to explain.

"The allegation is that the Conservative Party cheated at the last election. . . tried to cover it up after and (were) caught," Dion told reporters in Montreal.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe called the prime minister "a control freak" for a weekend attempt by the Tories to leak details of the allegations to select reporters in advance of Monday's court-ordered release.

A search warrant related to a raid on Conservative headquarters accuses the party of making "false and misleading" statements in their financial returns for the last election.

The warrant also says the Conservatives exceeded the $18-million election spending limit by $1 million.

Dion said the money could have influenced the outcome of the January 2006 election, which saw the Grits ousted from power and the Tories form a minority government.

"Yes, it may have had an effect," Dion said. "We'll never know for sure, but you don't cheat for nothing. You cheat because you want to have an effect. You want to have more voters for you in an illegal way."

The Tories have denied they've done anything wrong and say they were surprised when the RCMP raided their offices last week at the request of Elections Canada. Peter Van Loan, the Conservative House leader, said the documents released Monday contain nothing new that could justify the RCMP search.

NDP Leader Jack Layton, who joined Dion and Duceppe at a Montreal food bank renovation announcement, called Elections Canada's allegations "very, very serious."

He also recalled past scandals that touched previous Liberal governments.

"It appears after 20 years of ethically challenged government, we've got a party that apparently spent as much as a million dollars more than they were supposed to on advertising," Layton said in an interview.

"That doesn't make for a level playing field and a fairness in elections."

"It could have created a result which wasn't foreseeable," Layton added.

Layton said $1 million worth of advertising could have a big impact on election results in Canada.

"And if that happened, it's extremely serious," he said.

The Conservatives attempted to put a more favourable spin on the issue by selectively releasing parts of the sealed search warrant on Sunday to hand-picked reporters in Ottawa.

The information was officially released Monday morning.

Duceppe called Harper a "control freak" over the engineered leak.

"It shows the real nature of Stephen Harper," he said.

"It's a contempt of Parliament...this is a control freak, the old Reformist Stephen Harper is reappearing, the real nature of Stephen Harper is clear now."

Duceppe said the handling of the controversy fits into a "an extremely dangerous" pattern of Tory attempts to manipulate the public.

"They're choosing the journalists they want to meet, just like they're choosing judges, choosing top civil servants."

Dion agreed that the Conservatives "don't co-operate with the press, don't co-operate with Parliament and it's evident they are not co-operating with Elections Canada."


A primer on the alleged misconduct of the federal Conservative party in the last federal election:

WHAT - Elections Canada alleges that the Conservative party organized a program to allow it to spend more on election ads than allowed under the rules through an "in-and-out" scheme. This program shifted $1.3 million in expenses to 67 local candidates who had room under election spending limits to pay for advertising, but didn't have the cash.

WHO - The elections watchdog says the party sent the money to these individual campaigns, which then sent it right back, supposedly as a payment for regional ads. But the money actually was spent by the party on national ads, Elections Canada alleges.

HOW - The agency says the party transferred money to 67 campaign bank accounts "and within a very short span of time, these funds or funds closely approximating the amounts deposited, were transferred back out of these accounts."

WHY - The elections watchdog says this plan allowed the national party to overspend its legal limits by about $1.1 million. And 65 of the 67 the individual campaigns involved got to claim 60 per cent reimbursement from the government for the phantom ad money that just passed through their bank accounts. The other two campaigns didn't get enough votes to qualify for reimbursements.

PENALTIES - Elections Canada alleges that the program violated a number of sections of the Elections Act. Convictions could bring a maximum penalty of up to five years in jail and a $5,000 fine for the financial agents involved and a $25,000 fine for the party. Most violations of the act bring fines, usually $2,000 or less.