The ethics commissioner has responded to a request from Opposition Leader Rachel Notley, asking for UCP MLAs to be banned from voting on the contentious Bill 22.
Since the bill would terminate the contract of the province’s election watchdog — who is currently investigating the UCP for violations of election fundraising rules in the 2017 leadership vote won by Jason Kenney — Notley argued there was a conflict of interest.
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Notley said Wednesday every UCP caucus member would benefit from having Election Commissioner Lorne Gibson’s contract terminated.
The government introduced the bill on Monday and invoked time limits on all three stages of debate. The bill passed third reading late Thursday morning.
“Ten hours of debate,” Notley said shortly after. “That’s how long it took this UCP government to dismantle democracy.
“Today’s passage of Bill 22 is a black mark on this premier,” she said. “Jason Kenney has turned the assembly into a bully pulpit… It is the most disgusting abuse of power in the history of Alberta.”
Gibson was tasked with investigating election fundraising and advertising irregularities.
“The UCP premier saw his party operatives and insiders being investigated for fraud, forgery and illegal donations in a leadership race tied to his campaign,” said Notley. “So he drafted legislation to effectively circumvent that independent investigation by terminating the investigator.
“Bill 22 sets a very, very dangerous precedent that Jason Kenney will overrule the will of the people in order to enforce his own, with no regard to the rule of law.”
The bill makes the election commissioner’s job a staff position under chief electoral officer Glen Resler rather than an independent office of the legislature, and specifies that Gibson’s contract be terminated.
The New Democrats say Gibson’s firing will have a chilling effect and the investigation will die.
The UCP says it’s strictly a cost-saving move (about $1 million over five years) and there is nothing stopping a new election commissioner from continuing the investigation.
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UCP deputy whip Joseph Schow accused the Opposition of sullying Resler’s integrity by suggesting he will ditch the investigation.
“These investigations are going to continue, which I believe is the most important point,” Schow said.
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“What I found most frustrating though, was the insinuation by the member from Calgary-Mountain View that now that things will be moved into the purview of the chief electoral officer… that somehow that means that… the chief electoral officer, Glen Resler, operates at the discretion of the premier or executive council.”
“How arrogant is that … to suggest that we control what Mr. Resler does. His is an independent office and one that must be respected and not passed around this chamber like a political football,” Schow said.
Gibson has been looking into fundraising violations tied to the 2017 UCP leadership race and has levied more than $200,000 in fines to date. Kenney won the race and earlier this year the United Conservatives won the provincial election.
Gibson, in a public letter, has said his office has received more than 800 complaints of election irregularities, and he is concerned that his dismissal will undermine faith in the independence and integrity of the election process.
“That’s what the NDP do,” government house leader Jason Nixon said. “They blow everything out of proportion. Albertans have gotten used to it, in my perspective.
“We’ve seen letters this week from the NDP calling on the lieutenant governor to do something unconstitutional: not sign a bill that has left the legislature. We’ve seen the NDP at times say the bill would only be voted for three hours. That wasn’t true. We’ve seen the NDP say that we time allocated when we didn’t allocate. That wasn’t true.
“We’ve seen the NDP say that investigations will be shut down. That’s not true. We’ve seen the NDP say the election commissioner’s office would not exist no more. That’s not true. At this point, from my perspective, and certainly lots of constituents I’ve talked to today just don’t believe the NDP no more.”
The bill also transfers control of the Alberta Teachers’ Retirement Fund, along with funds for the Workers’ Compensation Board and Alberta Health Services, to the Alberta Investment Management Corp., a Crown corporation.
Notley said to have so little debate on such a huge piece of legislation is something she’s never seen in the legislature.
“We will be assessing all further options to fight this legislation,” the Opposition leader said. “We will file multiple complaints with the ethics commissioner now that the bill has been passed.”
“The ATRF (Alberta Teachers’ Retirement Fund) moving into AIMCo (Alberta Investment Management Corporation) has no impact, no impact on teachers pensions,” Schow said. “I don’t know how many times that’s been repeated in this chamber but that is the reality there.
“The second thing is that there is no impact on the ATRF board control over said pensions.”
Prior to the final vote, Opposition NDP critic Sarah Hoffman said it was shameful that Kenney wasn’t in the legislature to defend a bill that fires the man investigating his party.
“If you want to bring forward a bill to fire the guy who’s investigating fraud, forgery and bribery in your own party, you should at least stand in this place and defend that.”
Kenney is on a trade mission in Texas.
In a live question-and-answer video on Facebook Thursday afternoon, Kenney described Bill 22 as part of the UCP’s plans to reduce expenses and streamline some agencies, boards and committees. He said when the NDP first created the election commissioner position (in addition to the chief electoral officer), members of his party had already expressed their opposition to the move, calling having both “redundant.”
Kenney said there are several ongoing investigations by the election commissioner and under Bill 22, “all of those investigations can and I presume, will, continue… There should be no interruption.”
Notley felt four groups of politicians were in conflict of interest when it comes to Bill 22: Peter Singh, Jason Kenney, UCP MLAs who have been interviewed by the RCMP as part of the UCP leadership vote investigation, and all UCP MLAs.
In her response, ethics commissioner Marguerite Trussler said her office had also received 10 other requests from members of the public raising concerns with Bill 22, or asking the office to either investigate or stop proceedings pertaining to the bill.
“No specific allegations have been made that any MLA voted on Bill 22 and thereby contravened the above sections of the Conflicts of Interest Act.
“As a result, I do not have sufficient particulars to investigate at this time,” Trussler wrote.
Scroll down to read the full letter from the ethics commissioner.
Trussler added: “under the circumstances, I feel that an advisory opinion would be useful” but said she didn’t have the power to delay Bill 22 proceedings.
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“Those individuals who are in the process of being investigated by the Elections Commissioner or the RCMP would be in breach of Section 2 (1) of the Conflicts of Interest Act if they were to discuss the portions of Bill 22 pertaining to the Office of the Elections Commissioner of vote on the bill,” she said.
“For those individuals who have close associates (as opposed to direct associates), eg. people they work closely with, or who work for them, in the process of being investigated, it is likely that they would be improperly furthering another person’s private interests under Section 3 of the Conflicts of Interest Act if they were to discuss any aspects of Bill 22 or vote on the bill.”
“I do not have the power to request the government to delay proceedings with Bill 22,” the ethics commissioner wrote.
“It is not within my limited jurisdiction to do so. It would be improper for me to intervene with the political process.”
In her response, the ethics commissioner Cc-ed legislature speaker Nathan Cooper, Kenney, Leela Aheer, Prasad Panda, Josephine Pon, Doug Schweitzer, Singh, Joseph Schow and Jordan Walker.
Schow was asked by reporters if he had spoken with the ethics commissioner about voting on Bill 22 since he was interviewed by RCMP in connection with the leadership vote.
“I’m not under investigation,” Schow replied. “It’s in public record that I was questioned by the RCMP,” he said, adding he wasn’t aware of the ethics commissioner’s letter addressing the NDP’s conflict of interest concerns.
Nixon said UCP staff spoke with the ethics commissioner earlier Thursday.
“We’re confident that all members who voted on Bill 22 are well within their responsibility under the Conflict of Interest Act after that consultation.
“I can’t speak to what each members’ obligations are under the Conflict of Interest Act, but we are confident that nobody has violated that in the voting process.”
Nixon said even MLAs who were questioned by RCMP weren’t breaking conflict of interest laws.
“My understanding — from talking to my colleagues, those three members — is each of them were confirmed by the RCMP during those interviews that they were not under investigation, so that would confirm for them and allow them to proceed with their votes.
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The NDP has written to Lt.-Gov. Lois Mitchell asking her to intervene on the grounds that the bill is an abuse of privilege by Kenney’s government. Mitchell’s signature is needed to proclaim the bill and make it law.
Nixon said he expects Bill 22 will receive royal assent sometime on Friday.
— With files from Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press
Nov. 21- Alberta Ethics Commissioner by Emily Mertz on Scribd