Alberta Chief Electoral Officer Brian Fjeldheim is being sharply criticized for his handling of the ongoing illegal political donations scandal.

Critics say Fjeldheim has signalled to illegal donors that he won’t pursue serious legal sanctions against them.

"He is a bit of an attack Chihuahua," University of Alberta political scientist Jim Lightbody said. "His bark is his bite."

Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt said Fjeldheim has made public statements that appear to minimize the extent of the illegal-donations problem.

"I think it questions his non-partisanship," Bratt said. "I don’t want to say that he is working on behalf of the party as opposed to working on behalf of Albertans but there are some indications of that, or at least not wanting to exercise his full role."

In an interview with CBC, Fjeldheim strongly denied being partisan and said he is appropriately pursuing both the investigation and the sanctions against illegal donors.

"I think if you look at my track record, if you look at the people I work with, I am certainly apolitical, there is no question about that," Fjeldheim said. 

CBC investigation uncovers illegal donations

In October, a CBC News investigation uncovered the practice by municipalities, colleges and other publicly funded institutions of making illegal donations to the provincial Progressive Conservative party.

In January, the Wildrose party revealed that a university, school board and a department of Alberta Health Services also made illegal donations.

Last month, another CBC investigation provided more examples of how universities and colleges made numerous illegal donations dating back more than eight years.

Through Freedom of Information, CBC obtained a letter Fjeldheim sent to every post-secondary institution in the province.

In the letter, he outlines the law, and in the last paragraph he states: "If your institution has inadvertently made contributions to a political entity since January 2005, I encourage you to report these contributions to this office immediately. We would be pleased to work with you to ensure compliance with the legislation."

Political donations by publicly funded institutions became illegal in January 2005.

 "It’s a strange thing to believe an ‘inadvertent’ contribution, a mistake, could be made for eight years," Lightbody said, adding that Fjeldheim had effectively provided them with an excuse for their illegal behaviour, and some talking points if they get caught out publicly. 

'Inadvertent' illegal donations 

In fact, after CBC revealed illegal donations by Grande Prairie Regional College, its president, Don Gnatiuk, told the local newspaper, "I want to sincerely apologize for allowing these inadvertent contributions to happen."

Fjeldheim said he never intended to give the post-secondary institutions "a get-out-of-jail-free card." He was simply trying to ensure he received cooperation.

"I don’t want to start by accusing someone of doing something," he said. "So that is why I put in the term inadvertently.

"You have breached the legislation or you haven’t. I am not trying to give anyone wiggle room here."

In early March, Fjeldheim issued a news release to update the public about his ongoing investigation into illegal donations. He revealed 53 cases were under investigation, but he went further.

"Putting this into perspective, over 152,000 contributions were made to political entities from 2004 to 2010," he stated.

News release minimized extent of illegal donations

Both Lightbody and Bratt said Fjeldheim’s "perspective" was a false comparison that served to minimize the extent of the illegal donations problem, which was picked up and disseminated by both the mainstream and social media.

Bratt pointed out that in many of those 53 cases, there were multiple donations.

"It’s almost as if it is being downplayed by the chief electoral officer," Bratt said.

Lightbody said there are dozens of cases that have yet to be reported.

"I think a person has to be pretty oblivious to what is going on if he thinks it is not a widespread issue," Lightbody said.

Fjeldheim said he had no intention of minimizing the extent of the illegal donations.

He said he provided the total number of contributions because the public had been criticizing Elections Alberta for not catching these illegal donations.

He wanted the public to understand the volume of donations his office had to process.

Bratt suggested Fjeldheim may feel "chilled" from doing his job. His predecessor, Lorne Gibson, was dumped after he embarrassed the government by publicizing the fact that Alberta Justice had declined to prosecute nine cases of illegal campaign donations.

Fjeldheim says he feels no pressure to restrain his investigation.

"I’m 65," he said. "This is a four-year hitch. My term expires a year after polling day. I am not making any announcements, but I certainly don’t feel chilled at all."