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Kenney and UCP deny fresh allegations about irregular votes, kiosks in 2017 leadership race

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party are denying any wrongdoing by his campaign during the party's leadership race, after a CBC News investigation surfaced fresh allegations.

Alberta premier and party defend credibility of leadership vote

After not responding for weeks to multiple requests for comment by the CBC, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (shown at a business conference in late September) defended the UCP leadership vote on Friday: 'Our central campaign did everything we could to ensure rigorous compliance with very stringent rules in our campaign.' (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party are denying any wrongdoing by his campaign during the party's leadership race, after a CBC News investigation surfaced fresh allegations including an insider who says he called members to obtain their passcodes and handed them over to others to vote.

The investigation published Friday lifted the veil on what happened inside voting kiosks set up by the Kenney campaign, as Stephen Harper's former top lieutenant vied with chief rival Brian Jean to lead the UCP after the province's Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties merged.

One insider alleged to CBC News that he phoned members to obtain personal identification numbers (PINs) needed to vote online or by phone, then passed them to Tim Uppal, a former Conservative MP and current federal candidate who played a key role on Kenney's leadership campaign. The volunteer says Uppal shared the PINs with other volunteers, who used them to cast votes for Kenney — a violation of party rules for the three-day vote. 

The insider's account is part of a larger story about allegations of wrongdoing by the team behind Alberta's premier that one longtime conservative operative says is the focus of an ongoing RCMP investigation and which one expert says undermines the credibility of Canada's democratic system. The Kenney campaign is also accused of using fraudulent emails to cast ballots and of collaborating with another leadership contender who attacked Jean in a "kamikaze" campaign.

After not responding for weeks to multiple requests for comment, Kenney and the UCP reacted on Friday.

"I know there are some folks who continue to have sour grapes, but I've always said you can't account for the activities of every one of hundreds of volunteers or thousands of supporters," Kenney said when questioned by media in Ontario, where he was campaigning for the federal Conservatives. 

"But I can tell you that we've reviewed this again and again … our central campaign did everything we could to ensure rigourous compliance with very stringent rules in our campaign."

Federal Conservative candidate Tim Uppal, left, and former Progressive Conservative MLA Peter Sandhu, right, stand inside voting kiosk that the Kenney team set up in Edmonton during the UCP leadership race in 2017. CBC News has blurred the face of another person not mentioned in this story. (Facebook)

'Disgruntled individuals' 

The UCP echoed the denial in a statement, saying Kenney's leadership headquarters "gave clear direction to field organizers and volunteers that they should not take possession of a member's PIN under any circumstance.

"While the CBC story alleges that a small number of members willingly turned over their PINs, Kenney headquarters did not and would not advise a member to provide their PIN to anyone else — willingly or otherwise. That said, a campaign obviously could not control whether a member consented to letting someone else vote on their behalf."

The UCP attributed the allegations to "disgruntled individuals," saying "others are willing to propagate these accusations for their own partisan ends."

Kenney also maintained there were processes in place to ensure the validity of the vote, including an audit, and stressed the other leadership campaigns signed off on the results. 

But questions have swirled around the depth of that audit, as the auditor had no way to determine whether a PIN was used by the member it was assigned to or where the vote was cast.

Jean's financial agent, Robert Such, who was responsible for signing off on behalf of Jean's campaign told CBC News he had concerns, and still does, but there just wasn't enough evidence that something untoward happened.

A leaked cache of internal UCP documents revealed the campaigns of Jeff Callaway, left, and Jason Kenney, right, collaborated extensively during the party’s 2017 leadership race to undermine Kenney’s main rival, Brian Jean. (Jason Kenney campaign)

Political rivals pounce

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley, who was ousted by Kenney's UCP in the 2019 provincial election, said her government beefed up oversight of leadership campaigns, but that it might not have been enough.

"I think that it raises some very, very serious questions," Notley said of the allegations.

"All Albertans deserve to know whether Jason Kenney won his leadership honestly or dishonestly, fairly or fraudulently. These are important issues that all Albertans need to track because it goes to the heart of our democracy."

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley, who was ousted by Kenney's UCP in the 2019 election, said Friday: 'All Albertans deserve to know whether Jason Kenney won his leadership honestly or dishonestly, fairly or fraudulently.' (Mike Symington/CBC)

Notley pointed to new powers introduced by her NDP government for the chief electoral officer and the election commissioner, who is now involved in investigations into the UCP leadership vote and has levied tens of thousands in fines.

A federal Liberal candidate in the Edmonton Mill Woods riding called the allegations report "deeply disturbing."

Amarjeet Sohi is one of only three Liberals who held seats in Alberta before the federal election was called for Oct. 21 and was minister of natural resources in Justin Trudeau's government.

Uppal, left, a federal Conservative candidate who played a key role on Kenney's UCP leadership campaign, is locked in a rematch of the 2015 election with his chief rival in the Edmonton Mill Woods riding, Liberal incumbent Amarjeet Sohi. (Peter Evans/CBC, Nathan Gross/CBC)

He ousted Uppal — a former Harper cabinet member — in the 2015 election. But the two are now locked in a fierce rematch.

Sohi accused Uppal of treating members of the community as "political pawns."

"The allegations in this story are that innocent members of this community were exploited by the Conservative candidate and others to further the interests of his long-time pal, Jason Kenney," Sohi wrote in a statement posted on Twitter.

"I think people in Edmonton Mill Woods deserve to know more about this and I encourage Mr. Uppal to be honest  and upfront about his role," he later said.

Uppal, through a Conservative Party spokesperson, denies any involvement. That denial was enough for federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer on Friday.

"Mr. Uppal has addressed this situation and I look forward to working with Tim Uppal as part of the Conservative team," he said. 

Uppal and Sohi are joined in the race for Edmonton Mill Woods by Tanya Herbert from the Green Party, Nigel Logan with the NDP, Don Melanson with the Christian Heritage Party and Annie Young from the People Party of Canada. 

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, shown campaigning in New Brunswick on Thursday, said Friday that he accepted Uppal's denial of any involvement in the allegations and looked forward to working with him. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

$163,850 in fines 

Alberta's election commissioner has levied $163,850 in fines related to the UCP leadership race, tied to the campaign of Jeff Callaway, who entered the race as a "kamikaze" candidate to attack Jean in collaboration with Kenney's team and then drop out.

Those fines are mostly tied to irregular campaign donations. 

Kenney has also had to contend with allegations that fraudulent emails were used to cast ballots in the leadership race.

The RCMP continue to investigate what it calls "allegations of identity fraud" related to the UCP leadership race and are being advised by an out-of-province special prosecutor.

CBC News has confirmed that at least five Alberta cabinet ministers and three sitting MLAs have been interviewed by the RCMP.

Duff Conacher, a law professor and director of Democracy Watch, suggests agencies like Elections Canada or Elections Alberta should administer the votes, rather than members of the parties, who often have conflicts of interest and biases in the race.

He told the CBC investigation that using someone's PIN to cast a vote could constitute fraud under the Criminal Code — but it would depend on whether the voter consented to provide that information or not.

"I think that's a very dangerous thing to be doing, because there's really no trace when you're phoning someone as to what they said, and did they actually give their consent or did you actually steal their password," he said. 

"And if they say, in terms of being investigated and asked by the police, 'No, I didn't give my consent', then you're in real trouble trying to prove that they did."

About the Author

Drew Anderson is a web journalist at CBC Calgary. Like almost every journalist working today, he's won a few awards. He's also a third-generation Calgarian. You can follow him on Twitter @drewpanderson. Contact him in confidence at drew.anderson@cbc.ca. Signal contact upon request. CBC Secure Drop: www.cbc.ca/securedrop/

With files from Carolyn Dunn, Allison Dempster, Audrey Neuveu and Bryan Labby

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