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Alberta government firing election commissioner who was investigating leadership

Man investigating UCP leadership race losing his job
WATCH: The man investigating the UCP leadership race is about to be let go. The Kenney government says the office of the election commissioner will still exist but it's being moved. Tom Vernon explains.

Alberta’s United Conservative government is firing the province’s election commissioner, but says it’s not because he is investigating the party and has fined it more than $200,000.

Finance Minister Travis Toews says the decision to end Lorne Gibson’s contract is strictly about saving money.

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“This restructuring is about finding efficiencies and ensuring that we have the most defensible process and structure going forward,” Toews said Monday.

“This structural change will not affect ongoing investigations. We believe that it’s critical to protect the integrity of democracy in this province.”

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READ MORE: Alberta election commissioner hands down additional $25K in fines in connection to UCP leadership investigation

Toews replied “absolutely not” when asked if Gibson’s investigation into the UCP and the party’s 2017 leadership campaign played any role in the decision to fire him.

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Gibson’s firing as election watchdog is contained in an omnibus bill introduced in the house Monday that is aimed at reducing spending and duplication across government.

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If the bill passes, Gibson’s contract — which currently runs to 2023 — will be terminated as soon as it is proclaimed into law. His job and five staff position are then to be transferred to current chief electoral officer Glen Resler at an expected saving of $1 million over five years.

Resler would be responsible for hiring a new election commissioner.

Toews said it would be the decision of that office whether to proceed with existing investigations, which would include the ongoing on into the United Conservatives.

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“The chief electoral officer will have full ability to rehire the existing commissioner (if he so chooses),” Toews said.

“We will have absolutely no input into that.”

Resler is in overall charge of running Alberta’s elections, but in early 2018 the former NDP government created a separate arm’s-length election commissioner to specifically investigate violations in fundraising and advertising.

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The New Democrats then hired Gibson. He was making $195,000 a year.

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Gibson’s highest profile investigation has been into the 2017 United Conservative leadership race won by Jason Kenney. Kenney became premier when the UCP was voted into power earlier this year.

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The investigation focuses on the campaign of leadership candidate Jeff Callaway. Internal documents have revealed that Kenney’s campaign team worked in lockstep with Callaway’s campaign as Callaway attacked Kenney’s main rival, Brian Jean. Callaway dropped out of the race late to throw his support to Kenney.

Documents show Kenney’s team shared talking points and a time for Callaway to drop out, but Kenney has said that is normal communication among campaign teams.

READ MORE: Jeff Callaway fined $70,000 by Alberta Election Commissioner

Gibson has issued more than $200,000 in fines tied to fundraising violations in the Callaway campaign. Some donors to Callaway’s campaign broke the law by donating money provided to them by someone else.

The RCMP has been conducting a separate investigation into whether voter ID fraud was committed in the leadership race.

Alberta RCMP asked to look into 2017 UCP leadership race
Alberta RCMP asked to look into 2017 UCP leadership race

Gibson has a fractious history with Alberta’s conservative governments. He served as the chief electoral officer from 2006 to 2009. His contract was not renewed by the Progressive Conservative government of the time after he spotlighted problems with the electoral process, including that the PCs were appointing officials who monitored ballot boxes at voting stations.

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Gibson sued unsuccessfully for wrongful dismissal.

In the spring of 2018, the then-Opposition UCP, tried to filibuster Gibson’s appointment as the election commissioner. It questioned whether the role was needed and, if so, whether Gibson, given his testy relations with past governments, was the right person to fill it.