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Breach of election rules or 'honest oversight' in hidden Alberta campaign donation?

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FCP Leader Derek Fildebrandt, back when he was still a member of the UCP Caucus. Photo: David J. Climenhaga

"The UCP denies the allegations."

We should probably get used to reading this phrase. I suspect we're going to be seeing it quite a lot in stories about Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party during the first half of 2019.

It was included in an Edmonton Journal story yesterday about allegations that in the fall of 2017 Kenney's successful UCP leadership campaign "deliberately hid" an in-kind donation that should by law have been reported.

Strathmore Brooks MLA Derek Fildebrandt, a rising star in the UCP's ranks until Kenney booted him out of the Opposition party's caucus earlier this year after a series of political missteps, said in a news release yesterday that he "is asking Elections Alberta to open an investigation into this case and to determine if other such cases occurred during the campaign."

For its part, the UCP wasn't actually denying the principal allegation levelled at it by Fildebrandt, who was chosen as leader in October of the tiny, libertarian-leaning Freedom Conservative Party. It was explaining it. As in, it was "an honest oversight."

"There was no deliberate effort to conceal this small amount," said a statement from UCP Communications Director Matt Solberg quoted by the Journal.

Fildebrandt’s story -- which he backed up with a link to copies of emails, receipts, and online advertisements -- is that he hosted an event in Strathmore for Kenney on October 22, 2017, and he and UCP riding president Ronda Klemmensen paid all the expenses.

"Both Fildebrandt and Klemmensen informed Kenney Campaign staffers Blaise Boehmer and Andrew Griffin that they would donate the costs of hosting the event as in-kind campaign contributions," Fildebrandt's news release said.

"In phone calls with Kenney campaign staff, Fildebrandt was informed that the expenses would not be recorded as in-kind contributions,” the release continued. (Emphasis added.) The release notes that Alberta election financing laws require all in-kind expenses valued at more than $50 to be recorded and submitted with receipts to Elections Alberta.

"According to Elections Alberta, the Kenney campaign recorded no donations whatsoever from either Fildebrandt or Klemmensen, while the emails released clearly show Fildebrandt submitting invoices for the in-kind donations to the Kenney campaign for their records," the release said.

"At the time, I supported Jason Kenney's bid to become Tory leader and gladly made an in-kind donation," the release said, quoting Fildebrandt. "I was clear that I did not want reimbursement, but these in-kind donations to the campaign needed to be legally recorded as such to comply with the Elections Act. In repeated phone calls, my request was routinely brushed off." He said he was told not to worry about it.

As for Solberg's point that the sum in question, about $280, was a small one, Fildebrandt said the failure to report it "raises the strong possibility that campaign activities across the province may have been funded by donations in-kind that were intentionally not recorded as such."

"The failure to record these donations legally was not an accident or oversite (sic), but clearly intentional and deliberate," he concluded.

There was a day when a lot of Alberta political observers were persuaded Fildebrandt's difficulties with Kenney were more strategic than real. But that was before the UCP leader publicly humiliated the MLA after he was caught hunting without permission on private property and was fined by a judge after pleading guilty.

Now, it would seem, the breach is real, and deep. Who knows? Perhaps Fildebrandt might now even reconsider his pledge not to run any FCP candidates in urban ridings where the NDP has a chance of beating the UCP.

In addition to his party duties, Solberg is a consultant with New West Public Affairs -- a Calgary-based research, public relations, and political strategy firm founded by his father, former Harper Government cabinet minister Monte Solberg, who was MP for Medicine Hat from 1993 to 2008.

According to the CBC, New West Public Affairs has also worked with the Canada Action Coalition, a federally registered non-profit organization that describes itself on its website as "an entirely volunteer created grassroots movement encouraging Canadians to take action and work together in support of our vital natural resources sector."

Among the Canada Action Coalition's campaigns have been organizing a boycott of a cosmetics retailer for a statement critical of oilsands development on its website, demanding the University of Alberta not to give an honorary degree to environmentalist David Suzuki, and organizing public demonstrations including truck rallies calling for pipelines to be built.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Image: David Climenhaga

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