Is there fire?
On Friday, StarMetro's Edmonton and Calgary editions reported that the Office of the Elections Commissioner has hired a retired Edmonton Police detective to dig into reports Jeff Callaway's 2017 "kamikaze" United Conservative Party leadership campaign was illegally funded.
Ken Brander, who has a background investigating fraud, money laundering and organized crime, will look into complaints that illegal donations were behind Callaway's campaign.
In a recording that surfaced earlier this month, a voice identified as that of veteran Conservative political organizer Wendy Adam could be heard describing what it said was Callaway's part in Jason Kenney's successful effort to ensure that he and not former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean won the UCP leadership.
If the voices on the recording spoke the truth, Callaway's job wasn't to make a serious effort to lead the merged Wildrose-Progressive Conservative entity, but to deliver a "kamikaze" strike that would send Jean's hopes to the bottom.
As an aside, StarMetro's story had one of the more entertaining corrections of 2018: "This story has been edited from a previous version that stated Brian Mason was the former Wildrose Party leader. In fact, Brian Jean was the former leader." Alert readers will recall that Mason is the former leader of the Alberta NDP and minister of transportation in the cabinet of Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.
Back on December 6, speaking inside the Alberta Legislative Assembly, former UCP MLA Prab Gill made similar allegations to those in the StarMetro story about an unnamed campaign, now widely assumed to have been Callaway's. Gill said "more than $40,000 in very suspicious donations" was given to a UCP leadership candidate to undermine Jean's leadership campaign.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, the Edmonton Journal reported that a former UCP member had filed a statutory declaration saying he signed up 1,200 members and "was told by Kenney to pay for the $10 memberships out of pocket."
When Tariq Chaudhry tried to get the money back, the Journal reported, the party stiffed him for about half. Party memberships are supposed to be paid only by members themselves.
On December 12, Highwood MLA Wayne Anderson filed a complaint with Elections Alberta about the conduct of the UCP nomination vote he lost in October to the Opposition party's former constituency association president, RJ Sigurdson.
Another candidate in the Highwood Riding nomination filed a letter of complaint to the party and later complained to media she did not "receive the respect of a proper investigation."
Polling during the UCP leadership race in 2017 indicated Jean was better liked by voters than Kenney.
Chaudhry told the Journal he plans to make a complaint to the Elections Commissioner.
Brander, the former police detective, referred journalists' questions to the Elections Commissioner.
Elections Commissioner Lorne Gibson has refused to comment.
The UCP denies it has done anything wrong.
Callaway insists his campaign made a serious effort to win and denies the allegations about it being run only to weaken Jean.
Kenney, as far as I can see, has not chosen to comment on the matter.
None of the allegations made by various parties have been proven in a court of law.
About a week remains in December, although the news usually slows down during the holiday season.
So, back to where we started, the existence of lots of metaphorical smoke is undoubted.
Does that mean there's a fire or, as John F. Kennedy might have said, a smoke-making machine?
That remains an open question. It is one of several important Alberta political questions that are likely to be answered in 2019.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.
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