'Steady volume of complaints' keeps Alberta's 1st election commissioner busy

Lorne Gibson didn't quite know how busy his office would be when he signed on last year as Alberta's first election commissioner.

134 complaints received by the Office of the Election Commissioner since it opened

Since opening last July, Alberta's Office of the Election Commissioner has seen 134 complaints filed. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Lorne Gibson didn't know how busy his office would be when he signed on last year as Alberta's first election commissioner.

But things have been "quite steady" since the office opened in July, Gibson said in an interview this week.

"There's been a fairly steady volume of complaints and allegations that have come into our office."

In the months since it was established, Gibson's office has hired additional investigators, issued three letters of reprimand, and assessed four fines for offences ranging from illegal political contributions to spending expenses outside of the campaign period.

Between July and the end of November, the office received 134 complaints. Not all of them have resulted in investigations.

Several complaints turned away

Gibson, whose swearing-in was in October, has had to turn away several complaints that were beyond his jurisdiction.

"For example, if someone complains about activities that are internal to a political party, those aren't things that are covered by the legislation," he said.

Election Commissioner Lorne Gibson says he expects complaints to ramp up leading to the next provincial election call. (Office of the Election Commissioner)

Gibson wouldn't say how many investigations are currently underway, or who is being investigated, but he has started to use his new powers — and to name names.

On Dec. 6, third-party advertiser Alberta Can't Wait was fined $1,000 for not filing advertising contributions statements in 2017 and 2018.

According to the website for Alberta Can't Wait, the political action committee is a coalition of five Conservative organizations. It formed after the 2015 provincial election, which saw the NDP form government for the first time in Alberta history.

The organization's central purpose, according to its website, is defeating the NDP government and "ensuring a UCP government forms in 2019." 

Yash Sharma, who has since been disqualified as an Alberta Party candidate in Edmonton-Ellerslie, was assessed two fines totalling $2,400 in October for soliciting and accepting illegal political contributions, and incurring expenses outside the campaign period.

Sharma was disqualified by the Alberta Party after he attended an event "that was critical of an Indian Supreme Court decision to allow women of menstruating age to attend an ancient temple," the party said in an October news release.

Registered political party Pro-Life Alberta was fined $750 in November for failing to submit results of its leadership contest.

On Sept. 25, former Red Deer UCP candidate Haley Wile and the business Red Deer Motors each received a letter of reprimand from the commissioner for receiving and making political contributions.

An entity named Mill Creek Plaza was issued a letter on Oct. 1 for making an illegal political contribution.

Under new election campaign rules, unions and corporations are prohibited from making donations to a candidate.

"There was a lot of concern around nomination contests and with some of the rules for third-party advertising coming into play Dec. 1," said Gibson. He said he expects complaints to ramp up in the new year as new deadlines emerge.

Starting Feb. 1, for example, candidates running in the next provincial election will be allowed to begin raising and spending campaign money.

In 2019, the election commissioner will take on added responsibility for municipal school board elections.

More funding approved

The steady flow of complaints, investigations and the upcoming provincial election period prompted Gibson to request additional funding from the standing committee on legislative offices for 2019.

The all-party committee granted Gibson an additional $200,000, while $500,000 more has been redirected from the department of Municipal Affairs. This has increased the commissioner's budget to just over $2 million.

Gibson is promising to reveal more about the nature of the investigations his office has tackled when he issues his first annual report later this year.

He said he intends to highlight gaps that he has already identified in the current legislation.

The position of election commissioner was created by the NDP government through the Act to Strengthen and Protect Democracy in Alberta.

At the time the position was created, Calgary NDP MLA Brian Malkinson, who was on the committee that selected Gibson, said the commissioner's mandate was to root out so-called "dark money" in politics.