Alberta's former chief electoral officer is suing the province after his sudden dismissal two years ago, reigniting a debate about party interference in his job.
Lorne Gibson was let go on March 3, 2009, months after issuing two damning reports and more than 100 recommendations on problems with election laws in Alberta.
They were viewed by many as a rebuke of the Progressive Conservative government, which has held large majorities since 1971 and won a 2008 election fraught with allegations of wrongdoing.
Nevertheless, Mr. Gibson received "excellent reviews from all stakeholders" and continued his work with "a reasonable and legitimate expectation of ongoing employment," alleges his statement of claim, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail.
Then, on Feb. 19, 2009, he found out from reporters that his contract would not be renewed. He was formally let go less than two weeks later.
"The plaintiff later learned that the [PC]Government members of the Standing Committee of Legislative Offices had unanimously opposed his reappointment and that the Opposition members of the Committee had unanimously supported his reappointment," the lawsuit claims. He was not dismissed for cause, it claims.
In a lawsuit filed Feb. 22, Mr. Gibson is suing for $450,000, or roughly two years' salary and benefits. The claims haven't been proven in court. The province and Legislative Assembly Office (the case's two defendants) haven't filed a statement of defence.
Opposition members who opposed his dismissal still support Mr. Gibson.
"He was the fall guy," said Liberal Hugh MacDonald, who still sits on the committee, in which a majority can dismiss the officer. "You have a big Conservative majority on the committee and they exercised the full might of that majority."
Alberta's system is somewhat unusual.
In Ontario, cabinet can legally dismiss a chief electoral officer - but hasn't done so for decades. Since 1919, all Ontario's chief electoral officers have retired or resigned.
In B.C., however, an all-party committee must unanimously recommend a candidate to the Lieutenant-Governor for appointment as chief electoral officer, and the candidate serves for a set term. In Saskatchewan, a majority vote in the legislature is required to remove a chief electoral officer, while in Manitoba, two-thirds of the legislature must approve the move.
Mr. MacDonald said Mr. Gibson "made some outstanding recommendations" in his reports.
"Lorne Gibson, [the election]wasn't his fault," Mr. MacDonald said.
He was recruited from Manitoba, where he was the deputy officer. Since being let go in Alberta, he hasn't been able to find another job, the lawsuit alleges.
Government members declined to comment on the lawsuit, but Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk - a Tory who broke rank and vocally supported Mr. Gibson in 2009 - played down questions of interference.
"I personally thought of Mr. Gibson as an individual who probably did his best. There were no agendas. Hopefully, he will have a fair hearing in court and allow this to pass, and focus on his new endeavours," Mr. Lukaszuk said.
Changing rules so that unanimous consent by a government committee is required would be difficult in a partisan environment, he added. "The fact is getting a unanimous consent would be rare," Mr. Lukaszuk said.
The recommendations made by Mr. Gibson cast doubt on Alberta's electoral process.
His office found nine cases of illegal campaign donations in 2007, and referred them to Alberta Justice, which did not prosecute a single one. The same report criticized the fact there is no consequence for political leaders who solicit illegal donations, or even to return the money when caught.
It noted Alberta law had no requirement for a political party to record when donations are received (making enforcement of annual donation limits impossible). It also lamented the province's leadership contests, which are unregulated while other provinces (British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario) regulate them.