Alberta PC party wants electoral officer to reverse orders to repay illegal donations – Conservatives say individual donors should pay for their mistakes

 By Sarah O’Donnell, Edmonton Journal January 30, 2013

EDMONTON – Alberta’s Progressive Conservative party has asked the province’s chief electoral officer to reverse orders mandating that the party repay thousands of dollars in illegal donations tied to post-secondary institutions and local governments.

Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta president Jim McCormick said Wednesday that the party returned $6,900 to prohibited donors where ordered by Elections Alberta in cases dating back the last three years.

But the party feels it is unfair for the political organization to pay for mistakes by individual donors who later went back to prohibited organizations and asked to be reimbursed. Under Alberta’s campaign finance laws, political parties are prohibited from knowingly receiving money via organizations funded by taxpayers such as school boards or town councils.

“We acknowledge the spirit of the act where we do not want to be the beneficiary of public dollars back as donations, period,” McCormick said.

“However, we accepted this money from individuals primarily in good faith as donations directly from them. We think the onus should fall more on those individuals rather than either the prohibited corporations or ourselves.”

McCormick spoke to the Journal one day in advance of Elections Alberta posting the results of three years’ worth of investigations into breaches of the province’s Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act. The information will be posted on Elections Alberta’s website.

Up until MLAs approved a new version of the act in the fall sitting of the legislature, Elections Alberta said it was prohibited from publicly releasing the results of its investigations, including identifying groups or parties sanctioned or censured by the office.

Those disclosures will only go back as far as Dec. 10, 2009, however, since the new Elections Act imposes a three-year limit on how far back the information can go.

The issue of illegal donations has dogged the PC party for more than a year as documents came to light showing that organizations like municipalities, school boards and universities contributed to the party over the years, often through tickets for fundraising events like golf tournaments or dinners.

In 2012, former party president Bill Smith apologized after the party returned $850 to Calgary Laboratory Services, a branch of Alberta Health Services. Smith said the PCs thought it was still a private company.

Smith also said last spring that the party repaid about $9,200 voluntarily to about a dozen different local governments and educational institutions in the spring. Those included donations from Medicine Hat, the County of Grande Prairie No. 1, the towns of Fahler, Okotoks, High River and Redcliff and Athabasca University.

Although the party voluntarily returned money in the spring, McCormick said the organization now feels it must stand up for a principle. In two cases where the party was advised by Elections Alberta to voluntarily return the money, it has not, he said. Both cases involve an $850 donation.

McCormick said Wednesday that in all the cases to be documented Thursday, with the exception of the Calgary lab, the party issued a tax receipt to an individual who later went back to a prohibited corporation to be reimbursed without the PCs knowing.

In a letter to Chief Electoral Officer Brian Fjeldheim dated Jan. 21, McCormick said that it is the individual donors who should be ordered to return the money.

“We think it would be unfair for any return order to cause the association to be impliedly seen as having somehow offended the Act in these cases when, in truth, the only breaches have been by those who, by obtaining reimbursement of apparently proper contributions, participated in prohibited contributions and then took the benefit of them,” McCormick wrote.

Fjeldheim said he did not want to speak in detail about the investigations until Thursday, but he did say that his rulings were firm.

“I believe the purpose of the act is to ensure the political entities can’t take the benefit of prohibited corporations contributions, even in circumstances where the party may not itself have contravened the act,” Fjeldheim said.

“I can understand how this can happen. But having said that, I still feel the purpose of the act is to ensure transparency and integrity. I believe that can be achieved, if these indirect ones being accepted in contravention of the act, if they’re returned.”

McCormick shared details of the 10 cases connected the main PC party with the Journal on Wednesday on the condition that the paper not identify the prohibited corporations involved, unless they had previously been made public, such as the Calgary Laboratory Services case.

The party feels that information should be released by Elections Alberta, he said.

Elections Alberta also will report that 17 PC constituency associations had to collectively repay $9,905, according to the party.

According to documents provided to the PC party by Fjeldheim, the donations all related to tickets purchased to attend various Leaders’ Dinners. Seven took place in 2010 and three in 2011.

McCormick said the party already takes pains to ensure donors know the rules about where the money can come from, but will be doing even more in the future.

Wildrose MLA Shayne Saskiw, the former executive director of his party, said that he does not expect his party to be identified by Elections Alberta as receiving illegal donations.

Whether ordered or advised, Saskiw said the PCs should be repaying any illegal donations.

“If there is any taxpayer dollars, directly or indirectly in the PC bank account at the party level or constituency level it should be repaid,” said Saskiw, MLA for Lac La Biche-Two Hills-St. Paul.

“It is mind boggling they are having this so-called discussion with the chief electoral officer.”

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