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More questions than answers in last week's fallout from 2017 UCP leadership campaign

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Premier Jason Kenney and cabinet are sworn in at Government House, in Edmonton on Tuesday, April 30, 2019. Photo: Chris Schwarz/Alberta Government

Eight Alberta United Conservative Party MLAs, five of them cabinet ministers, now admit they've been interviewed by the RCMP in the federal police force's ongoing investigation into the curious goings on during the party's 2017 leadership race, from which Premier Jason Kenney emerged victorious.

Every time another UCP Caucus member is interviewed by the Mounties, the party or the MLA in question issues a statement stating that the he or she is not under investigation.

This begs an obvious question: Who is?

Someone must be, or else the national police force, facing budget restrictions like everyone else nowadays, wouldn't be investigating, would they?

Much has been made of the fact this continuing police investigation doesn't appear to have made a dent on public approval of Kenney's UCP government, elected in April. True enough, but this ought not really to be a surprise. It will only be when the $64,000 question is answered that most voters will decide whether it should have an impact on how they view the governing party.

In the meantime, without additional information, it would hardly be fair to draw a connection between whatever is being investigated by the Mounties and Kenney's victory or the loss of his principal rival, former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean.

Regardless, it seems as if it would be a good idea from the UCP's perspective either to get this over with immediately or try to stall it past the federal election this fall. Since they've heard the investigators' questions, they're bound to have a somewhat better idea than the rest of us of where this is headed.

Certainly they wouldn't want a story that makes them look crooked to break just before the October election, in which all provincial Conservative governing parties appear to be toiling mightily to elect Conservative Party of Canada Leader Andrew Scheer as prime minister of Canada, giving them a crack at reopening the Canadian Constitution to their advantage.

Scheer is already having a problem living down the recent depredations of Ontario Premier Doug Ford, whose Progressive Conservative government is on hiatus from governing in order to avoid further embarrassments blowing up their federal brethren's campaign. (This has forced Scheer to come up with his own embarrassments, which doesn't seem to have been a problem. Consider his declaration to a group of dairy farmers that Canada's Food Guide is the product of liberal ideology, not science. Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, perhaps the result of having Gerald Butts back on his campaign team, was pretty feisty in response.)

The Mounties, meanwhile, with their Alberta investigation now overseen by an unnamed Ontario prosecutor, are moving at their own stately pace. Perhaps they'll tip off the news media when its time for a raid, as they've been known to do in the past.

So far, they are known to have interviewed Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer, Infrastructure Minister Prasad Panda, Culture Minister Leela Aheer, Seniors and Housing Minister Josephine Pon, Associate Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jason Luan, Cardston-Siksika MLA Joseph Schow, Sherwood Park MLA Jordan Walker and Calgary-East MLA Peter Singh. Mr. Singh’s Calgary auto body repair shop was also searched by police, who carted off computer equipment.

In the same time frame this story was unfolding, the Office of the Election Commissioner announced fines totalling $70,000 had been levied on former UCP leadership contender Jeff Callaway for two dozen campaign finance infractions.

So far, Commissioner Lorne Gibson's staff has levied fines of $168,350, against various participants in Callaway's "Kamikaze" campaign, so known because it was supposedly intended to sink Jean's leadership hopes in a way that let Kenney keep his paws clean.

This led NDP ethics critic Heather Sweet last week to demand Premier Kenney throw Callaway and his campaign team out of the party. "The sheer scale of illegal behaviour inside the UCP is truly disgraceful, and it reveals a culture of corruption," she stated.

Kenney denies any involvement.

As for Gibson, who was appointed by the NDP, the UCP are not fans. Doubtless Kenney would love to send him packing, if only he could think up with a decent excuse that didn’t make it look like he was trying to derail an ongoing investigation. It's thought Gibson's staff played a role in persuading the RCMP to launch its independent investigation, although exactly what the Mounties are investigating is not clear. Presumably they are interested in more serious infractions than violations of mere election finance regulations.

If anyone ends up being charged as a result of the Mounties' inquiries -- and there's no way of knowing at this point if that will happen -- it seems likely the UCP leadership will disavow them completely, a political phenomenon known as being tossed under the wheels of a bus.

With all this stuff swirling around, the recent example of Michael Cohen, U.S. President Donald Trump's former personal lawyer, who sang like a canary in similar circumstances, must make the UCP and CPC strategic brain trusts as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs. 

Indeed, why someone isn't already singing is yet another interesting outstanding question. Unless, of course, somebody is.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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