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Alberta premier cleared in ethics probe tied to firing of election commissioner


EDMONTON — Alberta's ethics commissioner has rejected Opposition accusations that Premier Jason Kenney and his United Conservative caucus broke the rules when they fired an election official investigating the party.

Marguerite Trussler, in a report issued Monday, said there is no evidence the United Conservatives directly benefited when the UCP caucus passed a bill late last year to fire Lorne Gibson as election commissioner.

The Opposition NDP had alleged that firing Gibson boosted the UCP's long-term reputation and re-election prospects given that Gibson was investigating the party and had already levied more than $200,000 in fines tied to the 2017 leadership race won by Kenney.

Trussler said, among other reasons, that the accusation fell short of proving direct benefit and, if taken to its logical conclusion, every decision made by a politician could be seen as a potential conflict of interest.

"It would be practically impossible for (elected legislature) members to carry out their duties and functions without breaching the (Conflicts of Interest) Act," Trussler wrote in her report.

"Such a conclusion would hamstring the operations of the government and the legislative assembly."

Trussler did note that one United Conservative member, Calgary backbencher Peter Singh, should have formally recused himself from debate given Gibson was questioning Singh at the time over campaign expenses.

"Singh is the only member who breached the (conflicts) act," wrote Trussler.

"However, it is significant that he did not vote (on the bill) and that the outcome of the vote did not halt the investigation into his campaign expenses."

Trussler said Singh should make up for his error by formally apologizing to the legislative assembly.

Gibson's duties and investigations were returned to the control of chief electoral officer Glen Resler, who said all investigations would continue. 

Heather Sweet, the NDP's critic on democracy and ethics issues, said Trussler's decision misses the bigger picture.

"We do not agree that the conduct of the UCP being investigated by commissioner Gibson was simply 'political activity.' It was corrupt, anti-democratic and well outside the norm," Sweet said.

"The UCP caucus failed to conduct themselves with the high standard of integrity and impartiality required by members of the legislative assembly when they attacked the rule of law with Bill 22.

“If the ethics commissioner is unable to investigate corruption under the current Conflicts of Interest Act, then it is clear that the act must be changed to prevent such corrupt actions from occurring in the future."

Bill 22 was omnibus legislation that included a clause firing Gibson.

It moved swiftly through the legislature in a week last November while Kenney was away on a trade mission in Texas. The government put time limits on all stages of debate.

Kenney said the move was to reduce duplication on elections oversight, but NDP Leader Rachel Notley called the bill a "gross violation of the rule of law" and in December asked Trussler to investigate.

The fines Gibson imposed pertained to money improperly raised and funnelled to the campaign of failed UCP leadership candidate Jeff Callaway.

Emails and documents have shown Callaway's team worked closely with Kenney's team to co-ordinate strategy as Callaway publicly attacked Kenney's main rival, Brian Jean, former leader of the Wildrose party.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 27, 2020

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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