With just over a month to go before the Alberta Progressive Conservative party selects a new leader and premier, Alberta Liberal leader Raj Sherman is raising concerns about potential political gain for untendered government contracts.
Calling for an end to all untendered contracts over $10,000, Sherman says he's "concerned about the contracting practices of ministers who control billions of dollars" while actively supporting frontrunning leadership candidate Jim Prentice.
Sherman says when the majority of PC MLAs and cabinet ministers back one particular candidate like Prentice, awarding untendered contracts during a leadership race leaves the whole system open to abuse and "introduces bias."
As an example, Sherman points to an untendered $200,000 contract for child and family services awarded last month to the Somali Community Centre in Edmonton by the Human Services department. Human Services Minister Manmeet Bhullar is one of four campaign chairs for the Jim Prentice campaign.
The Human Services department says the untendered contract was awarded to the Somali Community Centre because of its expertise in community outreach.
The contract was awarded in June, after the Somali centre ran into financial problems with a grant last year. The centre, and its director Mahamad Accord, received a $1.2 million grant to provide outreach services to at-risk youths under the former Safe Communities Program in 2011.
The project was abruptly halted in 2013 when $300,000 of the grant was returned to the government by E4C, the Edmonton fiscal agent administering the grant for the Somali Community Centre.
Edmonton police conducted an investigation into alleged fraud related to the grant, but no charges were laid and the government didn't pursue further investigation. Accord acknowledges there was "fiscal mismanagement," but attributes it to a disagreement between the Somali centre board and its fiscal agent E4C.
In January, Accord asked that the funding be restored but was refused by Justice Minister Jonathan Denis. But Denis wrote that "E4C met the requirements of the grant agreement and also acted in good faith."
Sherman says he's concerned about what happened to the program for Somali youths, the lack of government oversight on the funding, and the decision to provide a new untendered contract.
"Was it made for some partisan reasons to help some leader get elected?" asks Sherman. "We hope not, but that's why it's important to publicly tender out the contracts."
Accord says he's grateful for the new contract and he has met with Prentice.
"There is a lot of support for Jim Prentice because people see him as an outsider, and he has no baggage." said Accord.
But he rejects any suggestion his project received funding in exchange for political support from the Somali community.
"I'm really glad that the people are interested in our community's support," he said. "And the community can express their view and support whoever is the best candidate in this great province."
Political scientist Chaldeans Mensah says it's not uncommon for politicians to make promises to so-called "ethnic" communities in exchange for funding of "pet projects."
But added Mensah: "What is problematic is the quid pro quo. I'll mobilize my group, but you need to give me public resources for it.
"There's a certain unsavory aspect to that" said Mensah, who suggests that type of arrangement can take funding away from projects that could benefit the whole community.
Even though he has wide support in the PC caucus and cabinet, Prentice says his campaign is being run completely independent of the government.
"My campaign is based on a very clear premise", said Prentice. "No deals with anybody under any circumstances, No deals for anybody for supporting me."
Alberta's auditor general is currently investigating how the government awards untendered contracts. The government came under sharp criticism earlier this year over its awarding of communication contracts to Navigator Inc., a communications company with close ties to the Conservatives.