Derek Fildebrandt, the Alberta MLA whose barbed criticism of everyone from his own party leader to NDP Premier Rachel Notley attracted both political support and passionate condemnation, has quit the United Conservative Party caucus over a series of missteps. The political implosion was largely self-created, but the close scrutiny given to his questionable expenses and legal blunders likely stems from his long-time role as a political agitator.
His constituency association is standing by his side. But after being a thorn in the side of so many for so long, there was little clemency to be found for Mr. Fildebrandt this week. The revelations have come in the midst of the leadership contest for the newly formed United Conservative Party and also could be part of a proxy war between front-runners Brian Jean and Jason Kenney.
At the same time, many Alberta conservatives wanted the summer political attention to be focused on the recent bad news for Ms. Notley: British Columbia's entrenchment of its stand against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion created a new opportunity to criticize the NDP government's inability to win support for such heavy oil projects.
Instead, the focus is all on Mr. Fildebrandt.
His indiscretions include profiting by renting out his taxpayer-funded Edmonton apartment through Airbnb, through which he earned about $2,555 over eight months, and submitting an expense and claiming a per diem for the same meals on nine occasions. He has grudgingly apologized over a number of days and said he will pay back the money in both cases.
This week's reports on the charges Mr. Fildebrandt faces for leaving the scene of a parking lot crash, where he allegedly hit and damaged another vehicle, appeared to be the final straw for the Strathmore-Brooks MLA. Saying he had made honest mistakes while also describing himself as "a flawed man," Mr. Fildebrandt resigned late Tuesday from the political caucus he helped to build. While the United Conservative Party left the door open to his return, he will sit as an independent for the time being.
"This young party cannot afford to be distracted from the formative period that it is in right now as we come together as conservatives," he wrote on Facebook, from a summer vacation spot.
Anyone who knows Mr. Fildebrandt knows that fiscal hawk swagger comes with anything he does. The 31-year-old – entirely boyish-looking despite a closely trimmed beard – cut his teeth keeping a careful eye on the travel and committee dollars spent by the Redford government as the Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. His self-described philosophy of "traditional conservatism with a kick in the ass of libertarianism" means he has never shied away from criticizing the deficit spending of Alberta's NDP government, or the shortcomings of "vanilla conservatives" who he says do what they believe to be popular rather than sticking to core values.
Given that past, a political comeback is far from assured.
"It's not just any scandal, it's a scandal that hits directly at his political brand," said Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University.
"His political brand is the watchdog. And he used to go after even the smallest amounts of wasted money."
But perhaps most pointedly, Mr. Fildebrandt publicly criticized Mr. Jean, the then-Wildrose leader, just as the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties voted to merge last month. The day of the vote, he said he would never support Mr. Jean as leader of the new party. Mr. Fildebrandt followed up later by saying that Mr. Jean is "not the best man to lead the party and lead Alberta" as he focused too much attention on himself.
The timing of the revelations about Mr. Fildebrandt have raised some eyebrows in party circles. He did not respond to interview requests Wednesday, but last week, he told the Edmonton Journal that he suspected that "backroom operatives" in Mr. Jean's camp were behind the initial news that he was renting his flat through Airbnb. Mr. Jean says he only learned about the Airbnb rental in news reports last week.
Mr. Fildebrandt had announced last week he would not run in the leadership race himself and did not publicly endorse a leadership candidate. Speculation had run rampant that the MLA could then criticize other leadership candidates on Mr. Kenney's behalf – allowing the former federal cabinet minister to stay above the political fray. With Mr. Fildebrandt sidelined, "that strategy is now out the door," Prof. Bratt said.
But it's unclear how the first Airbnb story originally surfaced. Globe contacts who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Mr. Fildebrandt himself had spoken openly in late July about renting his apartment on Airbnb, including an anecdote about evicting a renter after walking in to see sexual paraphernalia spread out across the suite.
UCP spokeswoman Samantha Johnston said the party wants to move on from the controversy. "We accept Derek's resignation from caucus. Now it's time to get back to building a solid foundation for our new party."
As far as the key leadership candidates go, Mr. Jean said "he's extremely disappointed" in Mr. Fildebrant's actions and believes Mr. Fildebrandt's constituents will have something to say in the next election. Mr. Kenney was a bit warmer, saying "I respect Derek Fildebrandt's difficult decision to step out of the United Conservative caucus as he seeks to resolve various issues."