Government-appointed tribunal chair says NDP inappropriately solicited support

The chair of an arm’s-length government tribunal says the NDP inappropriately solicited him for donations, effectively undermining his role and pressuring him to support the governing party.

Peter Bowal of Occupational Health and Safety Council received fundraising emails

Peter Bowal, chair of the Occupational Health and Safety Council, says he felt pressured by NDP fundraising emails. (CBC)

The chair of an arm's-length government tribunal says the NDP inappropriately solicited him for donations, effectively undermining his role and pressuring him to support the governing party.

Peter Bowal is chair of the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Council, a quasi-judicial tribunal that hears appeals of orders issued against employees and employers. He and his fellow members are appointed by the labour minister but are expected to be apolitical.

But in November 2015, Bowal began receiving NDP invitations to $250 fundraising receptions with Premier Rachel Notley.

"It is a bad precedent because we are operating as a council at arm's length from the government, certainly from the political party," Bowal said. "And we are not political at all in our work."

Bowal said he has never politically supported the NDP or done anything to place himself on the party's mailing list. He is a Wildrose Party member but he said he has never volunteered for, or given money to, any provincial political party.

A Nov. 13, 2015, email to Bowal from NDP president Christopher O'Halloran reads: "On November 26, Rachel Notley will be holding a fundraising reception event in Calgary and she wants you to be there.

"Rachel Notley and other members of the NDP caucus will be on hand to discuss issues that are important to Calgary and they would like to hear from you," the email continues. Bowal received a similar email on Feb. 3, then a follow-up phone call from a party worker.

Subtle pressure

Bowal is a law professor at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business and sits on two other government boards. His term on the OHS Council ends in November 2017.

"There is a subtle sense that one could take from this that you might have to give money, or it helps if you give money, to the party if you want to be reappointed," he said.

But Bowal said if he did make a political donation, it could draw allegations of bias.

New Democrat party president Christopher O’Halloran says fundraising emails to a tribunal chair were a mistake.
"I would say about half of our cases involve the Government of Alberta being a party," he said. "And if we are perceived as being in the pocket of the government or being favourable to the government or being close to the government, that would seem to contaminate the work that we do."

NDP president Christopher O'Halloran said it was a mistake to solicit Bowal. He said the party never would have contacted him if it knew his role within government.

"I did not know that he sat on the Occupational Health and Safety Council, that he was engaged or involved in any part of that," O'Halloran said. "That did not come up in the research I did."

Bowal's biography page on the University of Calgary website identifies him as chair of the OHS Council, and a member of both the Municipal Government Board and the Alberta Health Professions Discipline Tribunal.

The Notley government was sharply criticized in December 2015 when it appointed O'Halloran to a political position as outreach manager for the premier's Calgary office. O'Halloran said he has not yet taken that role and does not know when he will.

Mistakes happen

Bowal received the NDP fundraising emails through his University of Calgary email address. He said two weeks before he received the first solicitation he met with then-labour minister Lori Sigurdson and they exchanged business cards.

Bowal said he believes his personal contact information from his business card has been used for political purposes.

"There is absolutely no other explanation," he said, but conceded he has no proof of this and said other members of the OHS Council told him they have not been solicited.

Through a spokesman, Sigurdson said she did not forward Bowal's business card to party officials. 

O'Halloran said NDP researchers placed Bowal on a "prospect list" related to business and the environment, based on an online search for people who may support the party. The party excludes government employees from its mailing lists, he said, but it is "not possible" to filter out every person who sits on a government board.

He said Bowal's university contact information is online and Bowal could have unsubscribed from the emails at any time.

Wildrose accountability critic Jason Nixon says soliciting political support from a tribunal chair is inappropriate.
"But even if I do unsubscribe, well, now they know I am not supporting them," Bowal said.

Wildrose accountability critic Jason Nixon said soliciting donations from apolitical government appointees puts unfair pressure on them.

"If in any way they are feeling that they are being pressured to contribute to the governing party (in order) to maintain their positions and do their roles for Albertans, that is completely inappropriate," Nixon said.

O'Halloran said the NDP has removed Bowal from its fundraising database.

The government announced in November 2015 it will review all of the province's appointed agencies, boards and commissions, following complaints of excessive salaries and patronage.

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