A retired judge and two former police officers are now handling the Elections Alberta probe into whether Edmonton billionaire Daryl Katz and his associates made "improper contributions" to the governing Progressive Conservative Party during last spring's provincial election.
Brian Fjeldheim, Alberta's chief electoral officer, has already collected documents connected to the sizable donation linked to Mr. Katz, who owns the NHL's Edmonton Oilers and is seeking a $100-million injection from the province to help fund a new downtown arena. Mr. Fjeldheim has hired outside, independent help to sift through the evidence and conduct interviews with a long list of individuals connected to the donation.
Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith, who asked Elections Alberta to investigate when the single-source donation came to light last fall, will be among those to be questioned.
In a letter dated Dec. 19, but released Tuesday by Wildrose, Mr. Fjeldheim told her that retired Court of Queen's Bench Justice Ernest Marshall has been appointed to head the probe, while Don Vander Graaf and Dave Davies, both with police backgrounds in commercial and banking crimes, have been retained as "independent investigators due to their particular expertise with these types of investigations."
Sources told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Katz wrote a single $430,000 cheque to Premier Alison Redford's PCs during the dying days of last April's election campaign when the Tories were running out of money and trailing in the polls. The amount, which made up a third of all party fundraising, was later divided among his immediate family, his senior executives and their companies for receipt purposes and to meet provincial election financing laws.
Duane Bratt, chair of the Department of Policy Studies at Mount Royal University, said that, by calling in outside help and elevating the scope of the investigation, Elections Alberta is demonstrating the "severity and complexity" of the allegations.
"I'm glad they're investigating this," he said. "This thing stunk right off the bat, everything about it: The size of the donation. The amount of people bundling it. The timing of the donation. The percentage of PC fundraising. The guy who gave the donation looking for an arena deal."
Alberta has a $30,000 ceiling on individual donations during an election year and other people's money cannot be donated, but Ms. Redford and her party have argued that some forms of so-called cheque-splitting are allowed. She has maintained her opposition to direct provincial financing of the $450-million proposed downtown arena that would house the Oilers, a project that remains in limbo.
"This is unprecedented," Wildrose justice critic Shayne Saskiw said of the probe's new phase. "We welcome the seriousness and the independence that the chief electoral officer has given to this investigation."
Lorne Gibson, Alberta's former chief electoral officer who was considered more aggressive than Mr. Fjeldheim, his successor, said Elections Alberta either wants to be seen to be taking this matter seriously, or preliminary inquiries point to the need for expert advice to ensure the case is being handled professionally. "After all, whatever the findings or decision of the CEO in this case, all eyes will be on him and there will be no shortage of detractors."
Wildrose has alleged that the Tories broke several sections of the province's election financing rules. "It goes directly to the integrity of our democratic system here in Alberta," Mr. Saskiw added.
Drew Westwater, a spokesman with Elections Alberta, said that, while his office does not comment on investigations, the outcome in this case will be made public in accordance with recent changes in legislation, which formerly kept the results secret.
He said fewer than half of Elections Alberta investigations involve external investigators, and very rarely is a retired judge called in to direct them. "If it is a minor matter, we generally handle the investigation with our internal staff. If it is an investigation of greater scope, we contract independent, experienced investigators to assist our office."
A spokeswoman with the Premier's office declined to comment, and referred inquiries to the party. A spokesman for Mr. Katz also declined to comment.
PC Party president Jim McCormick said the party has already handed over a "fairly comprehensive" package of information to Elections Alberta, but he wouldn't disclose what documents it contained.
He said the party supports the process, and the presence of external investigators doesn't impact his view of the case one way or another. "We're waiting to hear the results just like everybody else," Mr. McCormick said.
Wildrose said it will continue to lobby for an overhaul of elections financing laws, such as including a ban on corporate donations and lowering individual limits to $10,000 during an election year.