Coun. Jeff Davison's mayoral campaign under fire for relationship with third-party advertiser

Multiple complaints have been filed to Elections Alberta regarding the campaign of Calgary city Coun. Jeff Davison, asserting that the relationship between the campaign and a third-party advertiser broke the province's rules surrounding local elections and corporate donations.

Complaints allege rules were broken around corporate donations, Davison campaign denies wrongdoing

Multiple complaints have been filed to Elections Alberta in regards to the campaign of Coun. Jeff Davison, alleging an improper relationship between the campaign and a third-party advertiser. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Multiple complaints have been filed to Elections Alberta regarding the campaign of Calgary city Coun. Jeff Davison, asserting that the relationship between the campaign and a third-party advertiser (TPA) broke the province's rules surrounding local elections and corporate donations.

Earlier this month, a Davison campaign official sent emails to supporters promoting a golf tournament, with entry listed at $400 per person or $1,200 per team, with various sponsorships ranging from $1,500 to $10,000 also available.

Perks offered for those sponsorships included the opportunity to have breakfast with Davison on the day of the event, or to ask the mayoral candidate questions during a scheduled question and answer period at the event.

"Prominent signage" and "prominent logo placement" was also offered, as were naming rights for the entire golf event.

Naming rights, logo placements and prominent signage options are all common rewards offered to corporate sponsors at fundraising events. 

Text on the bottom of the invitation stated that proceeds from the tournament would "be used to conduct election advertising in support of Jeff Davison's run for mayor."

An initial email, listed as a Jeff Davison for Mayor fundraiser, was sent on July 9. But a subsequent email, sent by the TPA Calgary Tomorrow, was sent on July 20.

A campaign official for Coun. Jeff Davison sent out these two emails — the one on the left on July 9, and the other on July 20 — that offered various perks and sponsorships for an upcoming golf tournament. While the event started as a Jeff Davison for Mayor fundraiser, the second email saw the event morph into a Calgary Tomorrow fundraiser. (CBC News)

Candidates in the municipal election cannot accept corporate and union donations.

CBC News has obtained copies of emails about the event from a complainant who received them from the Davison campaign.

The same person who emailed out the invitations identified herself in a May 28 email as being an acting campaign manager with the Davison campaign. That individual was still sending out Davison campaign emails as of this week.

In response to a request from CBC News, the Davison campaign said it would not answer questions for this story.

But in a statement, Kelley Charlebois, Davison's campaign manager, wrote that the campaign was committed to both "the spirit and the intention of the provincial legislation."

"We have strictly followed the rules as laid out and we will continue to do so," Charlebois wrote.

The election act and contributions

According to the Local Authorities Election Act, no candidate or person acting on behalf of a candidate is permitted to directly or indirectly solicit or accept a contribution if the candidate or person knows that the "prospective contributor is a prohibited organization."

Under the LAEA, a "prohibited organization" refers to a corporation and an unincorporated organization, including trade unions and employee organizations.

Those who contravene that portion of the LAEA are guilty of an offence and liable for a fine of no more than $10,000.

Further to that, a registered third-party is not permitted to circumvent contribution limits or expense limits by colluding with a candidate, and vice versa.

The consequences of such an action also involve $10,000 if the third-party is an individual, and $100,000 if the third-party is a trade union, employee organization, corporation or other organization.

TPAs are, however, allowed to take and collect corporate and union donations.

Calgary Tomorrow

Not much is known about the TPA known as Calgary Tomorrow. In Calgary, TPAs must register with Elections Calgary.

Calgary Tomorrow registered on May 3, but refused to sign a consent form, which would allow Elections Calgary to put information about it on its website. Signing a consent form is optional, though five out of the six registered TPAs in Calgary have opted to sign the disclosure.

Information listed on the website includes various disclosures, officers and primary contact information. None of that information is yet listed for Calgary Tomorrow.

However, the city tells CBC News that Calgary Tomorrow has now decided to sign a consent form, and information will be going up on its website soon.

Without that consent, no one would know anything about Calgary Tomorrow until after the election, when it files a financial report, as required by the act.

Charlebois, Davison's campaign manager, said that it was "unfortunate that individual Calgarians who have chosen to participate in the democratic process" were now being targeted by "frivolous complaints and slimy political tactics to suggest something untoward has happened."

"We encourage all TPAs to make their contact information available and their affiliations clear," Charlebois wrote. 

"As the rules stipulate, it's not our decision on what any third-party advertiser chooses to do. I'd also suggest that any donor to a TPA ought to ask where their money is going."

Lori Williams
Mount Royal University political science professor Lori Williams says the revelations surrounding Calgary Tomorrow could damage Coun. Jeff Davison's mayoral campaign just as it was starting to get underway. (Colin Hall/CBC)

Mount Royal University political science professor Lori Williams said there is supposed to be a distance between TPAs and candidates due to the fact that candidates are only allowed to receive up to $5,000 in donations from individuals.

"Corporate and union donations aren't supposed to happen at all. Yet, here, we have the possibility of corporations donating to a TPA, not having to disclose those donations," Williams said. 

"Now we have the additional problem here in that the campaign itself is directing those who want to make corporation donations … can direct those donations to the TPA.

"Now that shatters the distance, the distinction, the arms-length, if you like, between the candidate and TPAs."

CBC News has reached out to Elections Alberta for comment, but has yet to receive a response.

The allegations have not been proven and it is not confirmed whether Elections Alberta is investigating, though a complainant told CBC News the office informed her it has started that process.

Allegations and pushback from competitors

Davison, the representative for Calgary's Ward 6, was first elected to council in 2017. He declared that he would join the race for Calgary mayor on May 12.

Stephen Carter, campaign manager for Ward 3 representative Jyoti Gondek's campaign for mayor, said the actions of Calgary Tomorrow essentially worked to circumvent the law.

"The legislation is very clear. You can not collude between a campaign and a third-party advertiser," Carter said.

"They are supposed to be separate … it's a very clear violation of the act."

Coun. Jeromy Farkas, who is also running for mayor, said it didn't "bode well" that a sitting councillor is potentially under investigation from Elections Alberta.

"It says a lot about candidates and what they do when they're campaigning," Farkas said. "It shows how they want to run a city, and how they want to treat their citizens.

"I think Calgarians are really fed up with the backroom deals, the secret meetings and all of that from city hall. Unfortunately, this just reeks of more of the same."

Geoff Pradella, campaign manager for mayoral candidate Brad Field, said Calgary Tomorrow's actions "appear to be a clear and blatant violation of election law."

"They can't work together. It's against the law. Period," Pradella said in a statement. 

"If this is indeed what is happening here, then a candidate who respects the integrity of the law should immediately withdraw from the mayoral race. Even the old boys' network can't possibly believe they should be above the law."

In a statement, mayoral candidate Jan Damery said the campaign had submitted a complaint to the elections commissioner.

"We are pleased to hear that they will be looking into this matter," Damery said. 

"I call on [Davison] and Calgary Tomorrow to disclose all expenses and all contributions to date. I reiterate my call to every mayoral candidate to release their donations."

Carter, Farkas and spokespersons for Field and Damery said they are not directly associated with any TPAs at this time.

Lots of open seats in election

There will be at least nine new councillors and a new mayor after the municipal election this October, making it the biggest turnover since 1977, when the 15 member council system was introduced.

Earlier this month, Coun. Ward Sutherland said he was withdrawing from the Calgary council race and throwing his support behind Davison's mayoral campaign.

This week, Ward 12 Coun. Shane Keating, who is not running in the municipal election this fall, announced a third-party advertiser that will endorse councillor candidates.

Keating contended the work would not compromise his work on council, adding the move had been cleared by city council's ethics advisor.