Alberta’s United Conservative Party government is terminating the contract of the province’s election commissioner, who has spent much of the past year investigating allegations about the party’s 2017 leadership race that involve Premier Jason Kenney.
Lorne Gibson, who was appointed last year as Alberta’s first election commissioner, has handed out more than $200,000 in fines in a case that has become known as the “kamikaze candidate.” It involves allegations that leadership candidate Jeff Callaway violated election finance laws to fund a campaign that was designed to help Mr. Kenney’s bid to lead the party.
The government insists the termination of Mr. Gibson’s appointment is little more than an administrative change, as the position is moved to Elections Alberta, which handled investigations until last year, rather than remaining in a standalone agency. The chief electoral officer could rehire Mr. Gibson, although there is no timeline for filling the position and no requirement to continue any investigation.
Finance Minister Travis Toews said the decision to terminate Mr. Gibson’s contract has nothing to do with the investigation into the UCP leadership race. Rather, he said the goal is to save $200,000 a year by eliminating the need for two agencies.
“We’re providing a full latitude to the chief electoral officer to hire the election commissioner, and should he choose to hire [Mr. Gibson], that will be entirely in his purview,” Mr. Toews said.
“We are doing nothing here that will undermine any current investigations that are taking place."
The RCMP is investigating separate allegations of identity theft and voter fraud from the leadership vote. A prosecutor from outside Alberta has been assigned to that case.
Mr. Gibson’s appointment will end when legislation tabled on Monday receives royal assent. Mr. Gibson did not respond to a request for comment.
Chief electoral officer Glen Resler was not available to comment, although Elections Alberta’s communications director, Pamela Renwick, said any open investigations will continue until Mr. Resler is able to review them.
“The legislation allows for the staff to continue in their roles, so I don’t see that their work is going to come to a standstill while we review everything and decide a path forward,” she said in an interview.
Ms. Renwick said it’s not clear when a new election commissioner will be appointed or if that will happen before Mr. Resler’s term ends, as scheduled, in six months.
Rachel Notley, leader of the Opposition New Democrats and Alberta’s former premier, said terminating the election commissioner’s contract is an attack on the province’s democratic institutions.
“This is corruption at its core," she said. "This is a challenge to fundamental democratic principles.
“Jason Kenney is casting a profound, chilling effect across Alberta, and delivering a message to anyone who would challenge Jason Kenney or his UCP operatives and felt that democratic institutions would keep them safe."
Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, said the election commissioner has proven to be an effective guardian of Canada’s democratic institutions.
“Despite some valid criticism of the election commissioner in Alberta being a little too secretive, he’s done more than anyone I’ve seen in a decade by investigating and then penalizing people who have broken the rules,” Mr. Conacher said.
“And that’s why I’m sure Premier Kenney wants to get rid of him."
The former NDP government created the commissioner position as part of changes that also restricted third-party groups that advertise during election campaigns, and banned corporate and union donations to political parties.
The UCP caucus opposed the creation of an election commissioner, and Mr. Gibson’s appointment. Mr. Gibson had been chief electoral officer a decade earlier, but the Progressive Conservative government of the day declined to extend his contract after problems in the 2008 election prompted him to call for changes to the province’s electoral system.
Mr. Gibson’s investigation of the UCP leadership race has resulted in fines against many of Mr. Callaway’s donors and several members of his staff from the 2017 campaign.
The investigation intensified before this year’s provincial election, as questions about Mr. Callaway and another investigation about fraudulent voting overshadowed Mr. Kenney’s campaign.
Mr. Callaway was accused of running a leadership campaign whose main purpose was to attack Mr. Kenney’s chief rival, Brian Jean, who led the now-defunct Wildrose Party.
Leaked e-mails showed that a member of Mr. Kenney’s campaign provided Mr. Callaway’s team with speaking notes, message plans, graphics and videos.
Mr. Callaway and Mr. Kenney have repeatedly denied working together.
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