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Liberal Leader Raj Sherman may have scored 'own goal' as Elections Alberta investigates donations to his party by firms he owns

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Raj Sherman

Call it the Alberta Political Advantage.

Reports of illegal and questionable political donations have dogged Alberta's Progressive Conservative government for years. These included contributions made by such public institutions as municipalities, colleges, universities, and health regions, as well as iffy "bulk contributions" organized by well-heeled private citizens who were friends of the PC Government.

Now it would appear it's not just the PCs.

Leastways, the Edmonton Sun and the Calgary Herald both reported late yesterday that Alberta's chief electoral officer is investigating two companies owned 100 per cent by Alberta Liberal leader Raj Sherman, a former PC, for making multiple donations to his own party exceeding limits on donations from multiple companies owned by the same person.

The investigation is based on a complaint made by Edmonton-based researcher Tony Clark.

Alberta Liberal Party financial statements posted by Elections Alberta show donations from Rajnish Sherman Professional Corp. and Empress Group Ltd., both wholly owned by Dr. Sherman, were greater than the allowable annual $15,000 donation limit by $2,000 in 2011 and by $4,000 in 2012, Clark said in a letter to Chief Electoral Officer Glen Resler.

The same law limits donations from the same individual or companies owned by the same person to $30,000 during the campaign period between an election call and voting day, and also makes it illegal for a party to accept a donation it knows exceeds the allowable limits for one individual or company.

According to the Liberals' Elections Alberta filings, the same two corporations appear to have donated $30,000 to the party this year.

Sherman told the Herald he does not believe he broke the Alberta Election Financing and Contributions Disclosure Act. "These are separate donations from separate entities," the Herald quoted him as saying. "As far as I am aware, under the law I can do that."

Sherman -- like all other opposition politicians in Alberta, understandably enough -- was strongly critical of Edmonton hockey and drugstore billionaire Daryl Katz's involvement in the controversial "bulk donation" of $430,000 in the spring of 2012. That donation was made to the faltering campaign of premier Alison Redford, which was in danger of being swamped by a rising Wildrose tide during the last provincial general election.

That controversial donation, in the form of a single cheque from Katz Group Properties Inc., appeared to many Albertans to be in violation of the law -- although Elections Alberta eventually ruled in 2013 that it was OK for a group of donors associated with companies owned by the owner of the Rexall drugstore chain and the Edmonton Oilers hockey club to contribute to a group donation even though it was handed over in the form of a single bank draft.

Notwithstanding Elections Alberta's conclusion, the popular consensus, in the words of the National Post, was that the donation and the ruling made a mockery of the province's election financing law.

While Elections Alberta cleared the bulk donation, it did say one $25,000 component was not legal because the named contributor, Katz Group chief financial officer Paul Marcaccio, was not a resident of Alberta.

Sherman said at the time that such donations tend to undermine public confidence in the system, and complained that the province's election finance laws have "holes you could drive a truck through."

"The current rules do nothing to prevent large contributions to all leadership candidates in all political parties from companies, unions, and wealthy individuals," he told the Canadian Press.

One of those holes is a three-year statute of limitations, which means Sherman and his party couldn't be prosecuted for what occurred in 2011 if it were deemed to be an offence.

Yesterday Sherman told the Sun any errors in his companies' donations were "an innocent oversight" and that the party would refund the money if it is shown to be in the wrong. He complained to the Herald that the rules are "fuzzy."

Moreover, Sherman said the donations from his companies "pale in comparison" to the pattern of illegal donations made to the PC Party over many years.

In that, he is most certainly right, although it might not have been the shrewdest thing to say under the circumstances.

This situation has the potential to become a serious embarrassment for Sherman and his Alberta Liberals. You have to know what the Tories are going to say if he points to sketchy donations by their supporters in the future.

On this topic at least, whatever the legal technicalities, it seems likely the public will conclude the Liberal leader has scored an "own goal."

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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