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The Court of Queen's Bench Law Courts, in Medicine Hat, Alta. The court's ruling could reduce the level of fines handed to donors who give too much.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

A judge has thrown out a fine issued by Alberta’s former election commissioner, saying investigators acted unfairly when they penalized a donor for breaking contribution limits in a ruling that also condemns how those fines were calculated.

The Court of Queen’s Bench ruling, issued this week, could reduce the level of fines handed to donors who give too much.

Glen Rumpel, a new-car dealer in Calgary, donated $9,000 last year to the United Conservative Party, which is $5,000 above donation limits put in place several years ago by the previous NDP government. The UCP refunded the portion of the donation above the limit and the election commissioner fined Mr. Rumpel double that amount, $10,000, which is also the maximum penalty allowed under the law.

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But the judge in the case ruled that the commissioner did not give Mr. Rumpel enough time to respond and issued an unreasonably large fine after failing to take into account his argument that the infraction – his first offence – was accidental.

The election commissioner’s office sent Mr. Rumpel a letter in April of this year, giving him 15 days to respond to allegations that he violated the contribution limit, according to the ruling. He was out of the country during that entire period and didn’t receive the letter until he returned a few days after the deadline passed.

Mr. Rumpel attempted to contact the commissioner’s office by phone and e-mail to explain that he hadn’t been aware of the new contribution limits, but his messages were not returned. Instead, the commissioner issued the $10,000 fine without taking any steps to determine whether Mr. Rumpel even received the notice, Justice Corina Dario wrote.

The election commissioner argued that it wouldn’t have mattered if Mr. Rumpel had received the notice in time to provide a response, because the office used the same fine for everyone regardless of the circumstances: double the overcontribution.

However, the judge said that only made matters worse. The law directs the commissioner to use discretion in setting fines, she wrote, and the practice of simply doubling the overcontribution without considering the facts of a case is unreasonable.

“Applying a maximum penalty in every instance against individuals engaged in the process who were merely uninformed of the change in the contribution limits does little to enhance the democratic process,” she wrote. “It only promotes a sense of disproportionality and unfairness.”

Justice Dario threw out the fine entirely because of issues around providing Mr. Rumpel notice, but added that if she hadn’t, she would have reduced it to $500 – 10 per cent of the overcontribution.

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Elections Alberta is reviewing the decision and will ensure the agency follows the law, spokeswoman Pamela Renwick said.

“Future decisions made by the election commissioner, Glen Resler, will comply with the requirements of the legislation for providing notice and for reviewing the necessary factors to determine the amounts for administrative penalty,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Mr. Rumpel said in an interview that the election commissioner appeared uninterested in hearing his side of the story.

“It felt like their mind was made up no matter what, and they showed no willingness to have any kind of conversation about reducing the fine or anything,” he said. “It was unintentional, it was accidental.”

In November, the provincial government eliminated the independent election commissioner position and instead moved the role into Elections Alberta.

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