It is, as one opposition member coined it, "the tip of the iceberg" of illegal political fundraising in Alberta – the revelation that the governing Progressive Conservatives accepted 45 banned donations in the past three years.
How much money the Tory dynasty has illegally accepted from taxpayer-funded institutions, though, won't likely ever be revealed – and the party continues to fight Elections Alberta over what it must pay back.
Details of the donations were revealed Thursday by Chief Electoral Officer Brian Fjeldheim, exercising new powers given to him by the PC government itself.
The 45 cases totalled $20,235 in donations, all to the PCs. No opposition party was implicated.
Until now, Mr. Fjeldheim had been barred by law from releasing such cases, but his hands are still somewhat tied. He can't publicize any donations before December, 2009 – and there are thought to be many – and he can only force a party to pay back a banned donation if it was given since April 22, 2010.
The PCs have returned those made since then, totalling $17,655, but the party continues to spar with Mr. Fjeldheim's office over what it has to pay back. The unspecified sum "forms the crux of our ongoing discussions with Elections Alberta," PC party president Jim McCormick said.
He declined to say how much it was. In an internal PC phone call aired by Global News Thursday evening, PC executive director Kelley Charlebois said the party was also being asked to voluntarily return nearly another $40,000. "We're of the mind, as a party, not to repay the voluntary amounts," he said on the call.
In an interview, Mr. Charlebois said he hasn't heard the recording, but said it appears to be a "private conversation" among 87 riding association presidents that has been leaked to the media. He wouldn't comment on whether it was his voice on the recording and his position – or the party's – on the status of the $40,000 in voluntary repayments.
However, a party insider said during a subsequent conference call among Tory officials it was decided that the Tories wouldn't give that money back until Elections Alberta clarifies the rules. The party, the source said, never debated not returning the mandatory repayments.
Mr. Fjeldheim said his new powers, which came as a result of a law passed last fall, ought to discourage such donations in the future, adding it's tough to distinguish between "the Progressive Conservative party and the Progressive Conservative government." The new law empowering him is part of Premier Alison Redford's bid to increase transparency in government.
Her party, though, objects to having to pay back donations that, it says, came from an individual who later sought reimbursement from a banned agency, such as a college. "It was the individual's funds that were used to pay for it. Period, full stop… what that individual does beyond that, we have no way of knowing," Mr. McCormick said.
Opposition parties said the PCs have long leveraged their position in government to solicit donations.
"With this culture of corruption, there's always this push or understanding that you gotta support the governing party if you want to get grants or any type of other funding," Wildrose critic Shayne Saskiw said.
Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said one transgression could be forgiven – saying his own party, before the 2009 cutoff, had two small cases of donations, around $100, that were returned. "The issue here is this is a pattern of behaviour [by the PCs]," Dr. Sherman said Thursday.
The 45 cases each also included a fine issued by Mr. Fjeldheim's office to the donor, ranging from $18.75 (for a $75 donation) to $850 (for a $1,700 donation). This is not enough, NDP Leader Brian Mason argued, to discourage illegal donations. He called Thursday's report the tip of the iceberg. "The Chief Electoral Officer will not end this practice, will not end the culture of entitlement and corruption for the Progressive Conservative party and government, with $18 fines," the NDP leader said.
The agencies who made the banned donations include several smaller towns, including Okotoks, Rimbey, High River, Barrhead, Whitecourt, Sylvan Lake, St. Paul and Elk Point. Other municipal districts made prohibited donations, but no cities did.
Others who made banned donations include Calgary's Bow Valley College, the Calgary Laboratory Services agency, Grande Prairie Regional College, two school divisions and a Calgary charter school system, Foundations for the Future Charter Academy.
Several investigations by Mr. Fjeldheim are ongoing. One is looking into a donation made by Daryl Katz. The Globe and Mail has reported, citing sources, that the billionaire Edmonton Oilers owner wrote a single, $430,000 cheque to the PCs during last year's spring election. It was then split up among several entities for receipt purposes, with each amount under the $30,000 donation limit. The PCs have argued some donation-splitting is allowed.
There's no timeline on when that investigation will be concluded, Mr. Fjeldheim said Thursday.
Another is into donations received by the constituency association of Service Alberta Minister Manmeet Bhullar. Public Interest Alberta, an advocacy group, complained that one company issued donations last year through several subsidiaries that, cumulatively, exceeded the limit. That investigation is expected to wrap up within weeks, Mr. Fjeldheim said. Mr. Bhullar said the donations came from companies he didn't know were connected. When the issue was raised, Mr. Bhullar returned the money and considers it a closed case.