Elections Alberta has fined dozens of municipalities, universities and colleges for making illegal donations to the Progressive Conservative party.  

On Thursday, Alberta's chief electoral officer announced fines ranging from $18.75 to $850 in 45 cases of illegal donations in 2010 and 2011.

"No one is pleased to be on this list," said chief electoral officer Brian Fjeldheim. "I think this will do a great deal to certainly lessen, and likely stop, a lot of this sort of thing."

The fine amounts were based on the size of the illegal donation, number of offences, level of co-operation with investigators and whether safeguards against further breaches have been instituted, he said. 

Fjeldheim believes the donations, largely tickets to fundraising dinners and golf tournaments, were made by people unaware of the rules.

Under Alberta law, it is against the law for a publicly-funded institution to donate to a political party.

In almost all the cases, Fjeldheim ordered the PC party to return the donations, which ranged from $75 to $2,550.

Tories return $17,655

The party said it has complied with the order, returning a total of $17,655.

About half of the illegal contributions came directly from prohibited corporations and half from people who paid admission to a Tory fundraiser and then sought reimbursement from a prohibited corporation.

However, the PC party's president said the donations were accepted in good faith.

"The donations were received from individuals who later sought reimbursement from a prohibited corporation."

"To be clear, the PC party did not accept money from prohibited entities" said Jim McCormick in a media release. "Rather, the donations in question were all received from individuals, who later sought reimbursement from a prohibited corporation.

"The PC party had no conceivable way of knowing that would happen, long after we received the personal donations."

At least one Alberta Conservative riding association admitted to CBC News it solicited donations from groups banned by law from giving money to political parties.

Fjeldheim said he is still investigating whether the Tories knowingly solicited or accepted any illegal donations.

No one knew the practice was illegal

The town of Whitecourt was one of the entities found to have made illegal donations by spending $1,915 in taxpayer money for councillors to attend PC party fundraisers. The cash was returned and the town paid $972 in fines.

Mayor Trevor Thain said the town didn't know the expenses were illegal when they were approved.

"We were doing our jobs as council," he said. "We were lobbying the government for the betterment of our community and sometimes you have to pay for that. Now it comes out of our pockets personally and we will still do that."

Okotoks Mayor Bill Robertson says the Elections Alberta probes have given all municipalities a lesson in the laws governing political donations.

In 2010, Okotoks indirectly donated $2,925 to the Progressive Conservatives by reimbursing the cost of tickets for an MLA golf tournament and a Premier's Dinner.

Robertson says no one knew that this practice was against the law. Instead, these functions were seen as a good way to gain access to politicians.

"One of the places to lobby them is at the premier's dinner in particular," he said. "Councillors were encouraged to go and were told they could be reimbursed for that but it’s turned out that practice is not allowed."

Disclosure only goes back three years

The Elections Accountability Act only allows Fjeldheim to disclose illegal donations to a political party after Dec. 10, 2009.

While opposition parties proposed that disclosure go back seven years, the Progressive Conservatives voted down the amendment.

"Going back by only three is barely scratching the surface," said Liberal Leader Raj Sherman.

Wildrose MLA Shane Saskiw believes the donations have been occurring for years.

"There was this understanding that you have to donate to that governing party or else you're not going to get the grants and it's widespread," he said.

"It shows it doesn't matter if you change the leader of the PC party, the culture of corruption and entitlement remains the same. The PCs change their leader continuously but that pattern continued to exist."

NDP leader Brian Mason believes Tories were aware of what was happening but allowed the practice to continue because the donations kept coming in.

"It's not a one off. It's not some exceptions," he said.  "This is a system that's been established in order to shake down public institutions and have taxpayers' money flow to the Progressive Conservative party.

Lori Williams, an associate professor in the faculty of policy studies at Mount Royal University, says the new revelations will hurt the party.

"It has been tarred. There's no question and that is one of the great challenges that Alison Redford faces," she said.

"If she can claim that she's different, she actually has to show that there's a significant enough difference that people will say 'OK, this isn't just voting for the same old, same old.'"

The fines come after a year-long CBC News investigation that identified a number of public bodies, municipalities and post-secondary institutions that made illegal donations to the governing Conservatives.

Information released Thursday does not include the results of the probe into donations that Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz made to the PC party last year.

The investigation, announced in October, is still underway.