Edmonton·CBC Investigates

Alberta election commissioner's 'excessive secrecy' criticized

A democracy watchdog says it is troubling that Alberta Election Commissioner Lorne Gibson refuses to release basic information about illegal political contributions he has investigated.

Lorne Gibson refuses to release basic information, or explain why

Election Commissioner Lorne Gibson says he has the authority under law to release more information about illegal political contributions he has investigated, but has chosen not to — and will not say why. (Office of the Election Commissioner)

Who is behind an entity called Mill Creek Plaza that was issued a letter of reprimand for an illegal political contribution?

And from whom did Alberta Party candidate Yash Sharma solicit and receive an illegal contribution, and how much was it?

Alberta Election Commissioner Lorne Gibson says it is no one's business but his and of those directly involved.

While Gibson concedes he has the authority under the province's election law to release more information, he has chosen not to — and he refuses to explain why.

Gibson refuses to explain the criteria — if any exist — upon which he decides how much information to provide to the public. He also refuses to explain how the secrecy he has imposed is in the public interest.

"This is my position," Gibson told CBC News. "My role is to be a decision maker. There are all kinds of factors that go into how I make decisions and I don't think I need to explain to you."

CBC News asked Gibson why, as a public official, he thinks he doesn't have to explain.

"Because I just don't," he said. "I would be explaining everything. Your interpretation of this and what you think is in the public interest, or what you think is appropriate, could very well be different than mine."

Which is exactly the problem, said Duff Conacher, co-founder of Ottawa-based Democracy Watch.

Gibson's "excessive secrecy," Conacher said, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the public to determine if the election commissioner is making appropriate decisions.

"Unfortunately like lots of government and democracy watchdogs, he is using his discretion to keep things secret that the public has a right to know," said Conacher, who is also an adjunct professor of law and political science at the University of Ottawa.

"And it is just bad practice and makes it very difficult for the public to determine whether these people are doing their job properly."

Disclosure ensures accountability: watchdog

Conacher said the role of watchdogs like Gibson is to ensure the public is served by democratic governments and that elections are fair.

"The public needs to know the details of what they are doing, including the full reasons and full information about why they might have dropped any complaint and let someone off the hook, or found someone guilty and actually penalized them.

"When the public doesn't have that information, they simply can't tell whether these key democracy and good government rules are being enforced properly," he said. "Or whether they're being enforced in a way that favours one party or another."

The commissioner's website shows he issued a letter of reprimand to Mill Creek Plaza in October 2018. But who made the contribution, how much it was, and where it went remain secret. (Office of the Election Commissioner)

CBC News contacted Gibson's office last week after a corporate search revealed one of the owners of Mill Creek Plaza Ltd. is Alberta Party Leader Stephen Mandel.

But through a spokesperson, Mandel said he and his business partner sold the plaza at least two years ago. The spokesperson said the new owner retained the Mill Creek Plaza trade name and apparently made the illegal contribution for which Gibson issued a letter of reprimand.

Land title searches show Mill Creek Plaza is at 40th Avenue and 50th Street in southeast Edmonton. One of the plaza's owners did not respond to an email from CBC News.

No questions from public, Gibson says

Gibson said he may provide more information about the cases in his annual report, but that likely will not be released until June or July, which would be after the provincial election. 

Gibson justified his refusal to provide more information by saying that he has never had a question from the public about the information he has released.

Conacher said Gibson's attitude towards public-interest transparency is common.

"Unfortunately it is the same kind of attitude that I've seen from so-called watchdogs across the country, which is that they are czars and no one can hold them accountable," Conacher said, adding that the solution is to remove their discretion to disclose.

Anything less than that, he said, "is a recipe for abuse."

Gibson did not respond to a second interview request from CBC News on Monday.

Gibson, the province's former chief electoral officer, is less than a year into his mandate as Alberta's first election commissioner. Tasked with helping root out "dark money" in election campaigns, the non-partisan commissioner reports directly to the legislature.

If you have information about this story, please contact us in confidence at cbcinvestigates@cbc.ca.