Alberta's Progressive Conservative Party has launched an investigation after leadership candidate Jason Kenney broke party rules by appearing at a delegate selection meeting Wednesday night in Edmonton.
Kenney and his campaign tactics were not welcome at the meeting, said party president Katherine O'Neill.
"The candidate, which I witnessed, came onto the premises where there was a delegate election meeting, and I had to ask him to leave the building," O'Neill said in an interview with CBC News.
O'Neill said party regulations are very clear. Candidates are not welcome at any of the delegate meetings, and Wednesday night's event in Edmonton–Ellerslie was no exception.
She said it was "very disappointing" that Kenney broke the rules.
"It's similar to what would happen in a regular election," O'Neill said. "It's considered a polling station.
"Every candidate that signed up to run in our race knew the rules, because they signed a document saying, 'I understand what the rules are, and I'm going to abide by them.'"
Kenney, who is campaigning to win the PC leadership to further his plan to unite the political right in Alberta, not only appeared at the meeting but also booked a hospitality suite — two rooms down the hall from where the delegates were to vote.
In an interview with CBC News Thursday, Kenney said the room was rented by supporters and he went in to meet them and say hello. He said he thought it was within the rules.
"The fact that I was in the lobby of a building for about 30 seconds is not exactly, I think, a significant expression of anything except my support for the process and our supporters," he said.
Each constituency association is selecting 15 delegates to send to the leadership convention in March. Kenney said each of the 15 spots in Edmonton-Ellerslie was won by one of his supporters.
Kenney 'sought clarity' before meeting
Kenney's staff claimed in a blog post on his campaign site that they sought to clarify the rules prior to the event, but didn't get a straight answer from the party.
"The guidelines state that the candidate is not to be 'near' a room where a DSM (delegate selection meeting) is being held. What does 'near' mean? 10 metres? 100 metres? One kilometre? Is the candidate barred from the larger building entirely — a building which the PC Party does not own nor rent as a whole?" the post states.
"Clearly the word 'near' is up for interpretation. Which is exactly why our campaign — on multiple occasions prior to tonight's DSM — sought clarity from the PC Party on the rules. We did so in good faith. Unfortunately, we never received such clarification."
Fellow candidate Stephen Khan said the rules are very clear and that the party has been very quick to respond to questions from his campaign. Khan suggested Kenney, a veteran politician, should know better.
"Jason Kenney, after twenty years in Ottawa, if he can't figure out that it's inappropriate to show up at a polling station, I think that's a clear demonstration of a severe lack of leadership," Khan said. "Albertans are looking for better than that. I truly believe that."
'It got a little bit heated'
O'Neill said she received numerous complaints about Kenney's presence at the meeting. Those complaints have been forwarded to the party's chief returning officer to pursue an investigation.
She said many party members were upset to see Kenney at the Mill Woods golf course clubhouse as they prepared to mark their ballots.
"Other candidates had their scrutineers there, and they were also witnessing what was happening, and they wanted to make sure things were being run by the books," said O'Neill.
"They all wanted to make their point before the voting started. It got a little bit heated but we took care of it."
O'Neill said she hopes the tumultuous evening doesn't set the tone for the rest of the campaign.
"This is the first one. There are 86 more to go, and we want to make sure that they run really smoothly and that they're open, fair and transparent...and that everyone is following the rules."
According to party policy, campaigning is prohibited before, during and after delegate votes. No campaign materials, including buttons or signs, are allowed to be displayed at the meeting, and candidates are not allowed in or near a delegate meeting, unless they are running for a delegate spot.
Candidates who break the rules can face financial penalties.
'He's the elephant in the room'
Political scientist Duane Bratt said a candidate with Kenney's political experience should have known better, but this kind of controversy is far from rare at delegate votes.
"All sorts of crazy stuff goes on at nomination meetings," said Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University. "We've seen this for individual candidates. We've seen this in delegate selection process.
"The problem is, it's Jason Kenney and he's the elephant in the room."
Bratt said Kenney's presence at the meeting is further evidence of the would-be leader's political clout, and his aggressive strategy to claim power.
"He's been steam-rolling opposition pretty much since he got in the race, and this is further evidence of that," Bratt said. "This whole race is about Jason Kenney and his plan to merge the parties."
'He knows how to win'
Though the incident may have angered some party members, Bratt said he doesn't think the controversy will hurt Kenney's chances. As long as Kenney remains in the campaign, the race for leadership will be lopsided, he said.
"He's getting endorsement letters from the former prime minister, he is apparently bullying other candidates and forcing them to drop out," Bratt said. "He's a gauntlet, so how does the party deal with somebody like this?
"He knows how to win."