We should have seen it coming. The first inkling that controversy would dog Jason Kenney’s victory in the 2017 United Conservative Party leadership race came not during that contest but a year earlier, when Kenney ran for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives.
On the evening of November 16, 2016, at the very first meeting to choose delegates to the PCs’ leadership convention, the Kenney team broke the rules so flagrantly you’d swear it was deliberate. Kenney’s campaign set up a hospitality suite with free food and booze at the Mill Woods Golf Course clubhouse, just a few paces from the room where delegates were about to be chosen.
A report in the Edmonton Journal described what happened. “You can’t be here,” party president Katherine O’Neill told Kenney as he walked inside what was, in effect, a polling station.
“Oh gosh, sorry, I didn’t know,” Kenney replied.
After a tense exchange between Kenney’s officials and PC party executives, Kenney left, but not before one of his campaign strategists called the rules “ridiculous.” When party executives told Kenney’s officials his campaign could face a financial penalty, one responded with a shrug, “We can afford it.”
The Kenney campaign—flush with money and self-confidence—would win all 15 delegates at that meeting. However, the PC party would deem Kenney’s actions so brazen that his campaign was fined $5,000 and the delegate selection meeting nullified and rescheduled.
It didn’t make any difference. The campaign went on to become a raucous four-month brawl in which other candidates cited attacks by Kenney proxies and supporters. Sandra Jansen, a PC MLA, said she was harassed at the party’s November convention in Red Deer: “Insults were scrawled on my nomination forms. Volunteers from another campaign chased me up and down the hall, attacking me for protecting women’s reproductive rights, and my team was jeered for supporting children’s rights to a safe school environment.”
Jansen pointed the finger at Kenney supporters. Kenney denied any wrongdoing. An internal PC investigation found evidence of “rude” behaviour by convention delegates but didn’t blame a particular campaign.
Shortly afterward, the two women in the leadership race—Jansen and former MLA Donna Kennedy-Glans—abruptly dropped out.
Kenney went on to steamroll his remaining competition, handily winning the PC leadership in March 2017 with 75 per cent support from delegates. The Kenney campaign template, where rules are ignored, dirty-tricks proxies employed and opponents trampled, had proven successful.
It was ready for deployment in the UCP leadership race.
THE QUESTIONS SURROUNDING THAT RACE POINT to two controversies or, if you prefer, scandals: the investigation by Alberta’s election commissioner that has led to $207,000 in fines against the so-called “kamikaze” campaign of Jeff Callaway; and the RCMP investigation into complaints of voter fraud by Kenney supporters.
The two often become conflated in people’s minds, but they are separate kinds of wrongdoings.
JEFF CALLAWAY WAS ALWAYS AN UNLIKELY candidate and never a particularly believable one.
As president of the Wildrose Party before its members voted to join forces with the PCs to form the UCP in July of 2017, Callaway had never publicly expressed an interest in running for leadership. In fact, he was an enthusiastic supporter of Kenney and a thorn in the side of former Wildrose leader Brian Jean. Callaway’s entry into the UCP race came as a surprise even, arguably, to Callaway, who had no platform to discuss when he held what appeared to be a hastily called news conference in Calgary on August 11 that year. Just 20 people turned up—half of them with the news media—to listen to Callaway take some obligatory swipes at the Notley government and some non-obligatory swipes at fellow leadership candidate Jean.
That, we later learned, was Callaway’s sole job—to attack Jean and thus allow Kenney to float above the fray.
Then, after criticizing Jean for months during the campaign, Callaway suddenly dropped out of the race just two days before he had to pay $37,500 as the final instalment of his entry fee, and threw his support behind Kenney.
“No, I had the money,” he told reporters. “I mean, I’m a finance guy, so money wasn’t an issue. It really was about, I think, clarifying the choice for Albertans.”
The UCP scandals include alleged voter fraud by Jason Kenney supporters, as well as the so-called “kamikaze” campaign of Jeff Callaway.
But money was a problem in more ways than one. In late 2018 Alberta’s election commissioner received an anonymous tip that questioned the source of Callaway’s campaign finances. The commissioner’s subsequent investigation uncovered a Gordian knot of financial subterfuge.
According to court documents compiled by the election commissioner, Callaway’s campaign had just $4,370 in the bank immediately before the leadership race was to officially kick off in September 2017. Then, within 48 hours, he had almost $60,000—enough to cover the $57,500 initial entry fee. This wasn’t from a flood of citizens spontaneously passing the hat to support Callaway. According to the election commissioner, this was a deliberate plot by senior members of the Callaway camp to circumvent election financing laws by having a corporate entity contribute the $60,000 but pretend it came from individuals.
According to the commissioner’s findings, Callaway and his campaign’s communications manager, Cam Davies, orchestrated a scheme with Calgary businessman Robyn Lore to direct the corporate cash through “straw donors.” On September 11, Davies met Lore inside Bankers Hall in Calgary near the Royal Bank. Lore had his bank wire $60,000 to Davies’s account in the Royal. They went inside the bank, where they began withdrawing the funds in bank drafts, $3,000 at a time. They gave these to supporters, who then deposited the drafts in their personal accounts, immediately withdrew the money, and handed it to Callaway or Davies, who were waiting outside.
Lorne Gibson, Alberta’s election commissioner, was blunt in the conclusion of his submission to the court: “This scheme was designed to circumvent contribution limits established by law, furnish prohibited funds to a nomination contestant and deceive the Chief Electoral Officer and Elections Alberta.”
In an exclusive interview with CBC News, Davies confirmed his part in the scheme but felt he’d been taken advantage of by people he trusted. “I was put in the position—a last-minute request was made by someone that I had worked with before and trusted and respected,” said Davies. “And so there was a certain level of trust where there should have been quite a bit more questions and caution exercised when asked to do something that, you know, now realizing was not necessarily in line with the legislation of that time.”
In the space of a year and a half after beginning his investigation, Gibson levelled a string of fines for breaking political finance laws against 15 individuals tied to the Callaway campaign. Those fines total more than $200,000. Callaway himself was fined $70,000.
Callaway denied any wrongdoing and requested a judicial review, arguing the election commissioner “incorrectly” or “unreasonably” exercised his powers and is “biased” against him. A ruling is expected in fall 2020.
He has also denied he was a proxy or “stalking horse” for Kenney. But that argument has been undercut by multiple sources, the first being a recording from August 2017 between Callaway campaign organizer Wendy Adam and UCP member Mark Hudson. Hudson, concerned about possible campaign wrongdoing, later leaked the recording to the media.
“Jeff [Callaway] is going to run a serious campaign but the reason that we’re running Jeff as a serious campaign is because Jeff will be able to say things about Brian Jean that Jason Kenney cannot,” says Adam.
Hudson chimes in, “It’s a kamikaze mission.”
“Exactly,” replies Adam.
(In March 2019, Hudson would quit the UCP riding association board in Livingstone-Macleod, saying he’d been “tormented” by other board members for making the recording public).
Most damning of all are the internal UCP documents obtained by CBC News that clearly indicate the Kenney camp collaborated closely with the Callaway camp. The Kenney campaign provided help to Callaway’s team for speeches, videos and attack ads, all aimed at undermining Kenney’s main opponent, Jean. Matt Wolf, a senior Kenney staffer (who would become Premier Kenney’s director of issues management) not only communicated regularly with Cam Davies, but emailed him a resignation speech for Callaway to read on October 4, 2017, the day the candidate was to quit the leadership race.
The CBC’s blockbuster story clearly tying the Kenney campaign to “kamikaze Callaway” exploded on the eve of the 2019 provincial election. And then fizzled—in no small part thanks to Kenney’s deft handling. On March 18, Kenney ran a gauntlet of aggressive questioning by journalists for almost an hour in the media room at the Legislature, all the while calmly repeating he’d done nothing wrong. Indeed, he said two campaigns collaborating during a leadership race was just politics as usual: “There was a degree of communication back and forth.”
Premier Rachel Notley, just one day away from calling the provincial election, insisted there was nothing routine about it: “At its very best, it amounts to very dark, backroom politics focused on thwarting democracy. At its worst, it is criminal in nature.”
Even Jean popped up his head, after having remained silent for months, to express his frustration that he’d warned both the UCP and former prime minister Stephen Harper about the kamikaze campaign. “This is what I was afraid of. I wrote to @Jkenney twice about this in last 3 months. Sent Harper a note,” he said on Twitter. “No one called me back. Nothing was done. People involved in this mess were kept on payroll and remained candidates.”
Kenney’s soothing narrative, however, would stick. Even if collaborating with the Callaway campaign was underhanded and smelled of dirty tricks, it wasn’t illegal. Besides, people think that’s how politics works. Or they simply didn’t care on the eve of an election fought on jobs, pipelines and the economy.
Even when the fines levied by the election commissioner began piling up, almost daily, the finger of guilt pointed at the Callaway campaign, not Kenney’s. But in the same week that Kenney was stamping out the kamikaze brushfire, news broke of an RCMP investigation into the UCP leadership race. For Kenney, this threatened to break out into a political firestorm.
CBC NEWS BROKE THE STORY OF THE RCMP investigation on March 15, 2019. Notley was all set to call the election and likely couldn’t believe her luck. Here was her political opponent, on track to defeat her according to every public opinion poll, facing a police investigation.
But there was a problem. The story had few details other than that Election Commissioner Lorne Gibson had learned of allegations of voter fraud in the leadership race and, because these were beyond his mandate, had handed over the complaints to the RCMP. “We are aware of the allegations and are looking into the information that was provided to us,” said a police spokesperson. “No further information will be provided on this matter unless there are criminal charges laid.”
Kenney offered a familiar response, denying any wrongdoing and pointing the finger elsewhere. “This is not about our campaign. This is about someone else’s leadership campaign from 18 months ago,” he said, pivoting back to the election campaign about to begin. “Albertans want to focus on jobs and the economy.”
A complicating factor was the identity of one of the major complainants against Kenney. A month before the 2019 election began, former UCP MLA Prab Gill had publicly alleged that thousands of fake votes were cast for Kenney in the leadership race after Kenney’s campaign team created “fraudulent email addresses.” He’d taken his allegations to the RCMP. But Gill was himself tainted. The previous summer he’d resigned from the UCP caucus after an internal investigation accused him of ballot stuffing during a 2018 constituency meeting in Calgary-North East.
After Gill went public about UCP fraud, the party disparaged him as a disgraced politician who nursed a grievance against Kenney. Lawyers for the party sent Gill a cease and desist letter. “He’s free to say what he wants to, of course, but he will also be held accountable if he defames the official Opposition with these ridiculous conspiracy theories,” Kenney told reporters.
The UCP also denied any wrongdoing. Party executive director Janice Harrington insisted safeguards were put in place to avoid voter fraud. “For example, all voting members had to physically verify their identity using government-issued ID,” she said in a statement. “This was specifically to prevent mass sign-ups of false memberships. Methods were also used to ensure that a high volume of votes were not being cast from the same location.” To drive home a point, she said the final vote wasn’t even close, with Kenney taking 35,623 votes to Jean’s 18,336. It’s not as if a few hundred or even a few thousand questionable ballots would have made a difference.
Days after the RCMP announced its investigation, Gill’s assertions were echoed by another UCP insider, Hardyal (Happy) Mann. Mann said he’d attended a meeting at Callaway’s house on July 19, 2017, to discuss running a campaign to attack Jean. Mann said Kenney was at that meeting. Kenney acknowledged attending the meeting but denied any conspiracy to run Callaway as a “stalking horse” to discredit Jean.
The UCP moved quickly to discredit Mann too, pointing out he’d been rejected by the UCP as a candidate for the 2019 election after allegations surfaced linking him to an incident where a Calgary radio host had been assaulted. The allegations and counterallegations felt like a political tug of war where party insiders were refighting old grievances. And nobody seemed entirely innocent.
Finally, in October 2019, the CBC published an in-depth look at the complaints of voter fraud. Disgruntled UCP insiders complained that they’d bought blocks of party memberships for people in the southeast Asian community but were never repaid. Buying blocks of memberships and then handing them out for free is a violation of UCP rules. But Tariq Chaudhry, former president of the Pakistan Canada Association in Edmonton, said that’s what he did for the Kenney campaign, spending $6,000 on membership fees.
Even though party rules did not allow campaigns to set up storefront kiosks (voting stations), Kenney supporters also did just that. According to the CBC, Chaudhry said his role at the kiosks was to phone UCP members in the Pakistani-Canadian community and ask for their PINs. He said he didn’t manage to get many, but those he got he passed to Tim Uppal, who played a key role on Kenney’s campaign (Uppal was a Conservative MP in Edmonton until 2015, and was again elected as an MP in October 2019). Uppal shared the PINs in turn with volunteers, who used them to cast votes for Kenney, said Chaudhry.
Speaking through a representative, Uppal has denied any wrongdoing and said he may have dropped by the kiosk but only to say hello. Kenney has likewise denied any knowledge of voter fraud, but has said on several occasions that if illegal voting took place it was done without his knowledge or that of his campaign officials. One senior party member who spoke to me on condition of anonymity alleged that members of a rogue element within the southeast Asian community wanted to ingratiate themselves with Kenney. “They wanted to curry favour with the leader,” he said. “They were all about ‘Look at how many people I could bring out.’” But he claimed they acted without the party’s approval.
(Since the October CBC story broke, Kenney and key campaign members have denied any wrongdoing. Neither Kenney nor officials such as Matt Wolf responded to requests for an interview specifically for this article.)
WHAT ARE ALBERTANS TO think of reports of fraudulent activity during the UCP leadership race? On paper these kinds of scandals should rock parties to their core; leaders in Canada have resigned over less. But the UCP scandals have barely made a ripple. They are cloaked in details so dense and complex as to make them opaque. Charges and countercharges and allegations of wrongdoing are made by men who themselves are accused of wrongdoing.
Some people involved have taken their lumps and quietly paid their fines, while others, such as Callaway, maintain their innocence while the courts review the evidence. Most importantly, no trail of breadcrumbs leads back to Kenney. And that’s where this would have to go for it to penetrate the public consciousness. The fishy odour emanating from the UCP leadership race has attracted the attention of opposition politicians and news media, but not the public.
At the outset of the 2019 election, Calgary columnist Catherine Ford predicted voters would be “yawning all over the province” at the allegations of wrongdoing in the UCP race. “I really don’t think this is going to have any effect whatsoever on the Alberta election,” Ford told CBC Radio. She was right. It must have driven the NDP more than a little batty to see how Kenney’s beeline to the premier’s chair wasn’t knocked off course by multiple accounts of fraud.
But these remain top of mind for the NDP, as evidenced by the first question period with Kenney as premier and Notley as Opposition leader. “I want to take the opportunity through you [the Speaker] to congratulate the Premier on his election victory,” said Notley on May 23, offering the barest glimpse of an olive branch before changing the topic. “In fact, in the days before that election it was confirmed that the RCMP were investigating serious allegations of fraud related to the 2017 UCP leadership race. It is unprecedented that you have an active police investigation into something that touches on the interests of both the Premier and the Solicitor General, who were both candidates in that race. In the interests of protecting the integrity of our justice system in Alberta, why has the Premier refused to hire a special prosecutor?”
Notley was referring to Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer, the forgotten candidate in the UCP leadership race. He finished third (and last) with 4,273 votes, but that was enough to catapult him into Kenney’s graces and into cabinet. They weren’t always friends. During the 2017 race, Schweitzer took aim at Kenney’s social conservatism. In an open letter to UCP members, he suggested Kenney had not released a detailed platform on issues, particularly LGBTQ concerns, “because he’s been on the wrong side of history so many times.”
But there is no greater salve in politics than electoral victory. And when it comes to treating hurt feelings in the conservative movement, there is no greater healer than Kenney. After a divisive leadership race, UCP members have rallied behind Kenney.
That hasn’t erased questions that should be troubling Albertans as a whole. Just what happened in the UCP leadership race? If the party took great pains to ensure the vote was above board, how could one campaign manage to find itself in such deep trouble with the election commissioner? And if there’s nothing to see here, why is the RCMP still looking into allegations of voter fraud? According to a January 2020 CBC report quoting an unnamed source, the RCMP is also investigating whether the Callaway campaign defrauded donors who believed the campaign was legitimate. The RCMP has questioned at least five cabinet ministers and three members of caucus. The police also raided the business of UCP candidate (now MLA) Peter Singh during the election to recover electronics and a suitcase as part of their investigation.
And one of the most troubling questions of all: Why did the UCP take the extraordinary step in November 2019 to fire Gibson as election commissioner? Legislation transferred the election commissioner position to the office of the Chief Electoral Officer—but made a point of not transferring Gibson or his salary. They move was justified as a way to save money ($200,000 a year; roughly Gibson’s salary); the CEO said he’d continue any investigations Gibson began. But opposition MLAs smelled a rat and accused Kenney of trying to disrupt the investigations. Mount Royal political science professor Duane Bratt, in a CBC interview, was more blunt: “It’s a cover-up. Plain and simple, it’s a cover-up.”
“This scheme was designed to circumvent contribution limits… furnish prohibited funds… and deceive the Chief Electoral Officer and Elections Alberta.” -Lorne Gibson, now-fired Election Commissioner
Gibson’s firing has managed to make a complex story even more convoluted. At the end of the day, we know this: The RCMP began investigating allegations of wrongdoing in a leadership race that included as candidates two powerful men, one who would become Alberta’s premier, the other, the justice minister. And the latter is the person responsible for the RCMP, which is conducting the investigation.
That’s why the NDP demanded Schweitzer appoint a special out-of-province prosecutor to provide independent advice to the RCMP. Schweitzer initially refused, saying he had confidence in police independence. Eventually the Crown’s office called in a prosecutor from Ontario—although the name was not revealed, leaving critics to wonder if Ontario Premier Doug Ford sent someone with a political bias.
And we wait for answers. Or, rather, the news media and opposition politicians wait. Most Albertans don’t seem to care. And they won’t unless something else significant happens. Even then, it will have to point to Kenney.
“I think it’s going to take something bigger than just another fine, or just more revelations about passwords and kiosks,” says Bratt. “It’s clear that dirty money was going into the Callaway camp, but so far there are no linkages to the Kenney team.” The RCMP investigation may end without charges, or with charges against a rogue element within the UCP that’s already been disowned by the party.
But the allegations themselves should be of great concern to Albertans, says Richard Starke, who finished second to Kenney in the PC leadership race. After the UCP’s formation in 2017, Starke refused to join his caucus mates in crossing the floor to the new party, saying he was troubled by Kenney’s polarizing approach to politics.
He worries the scandals surrounding the UCP leadership race will do lasting damage to democracy. “These are really, really serious allegations of some pretty serious malfeasance, and that should be cause for concern for Albertans,” says Starke. “We want to know we can trust and rely on the integrity of our democratic institutions.”
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Graham Thomson is a member of the Legislature Press Gallery and a former Edmonton Journal political columnist.