'Unfair' and 'unreasonable': Alberta Party Leader Stephen Mandel responds to 5-year ban

Stephen Mandel is in a legal fight for his political life.

Elections Alberta says Mandel filed financial returns late, leading to five-year ban

Stephen Mandel is challenging parts of the election finance legislation after he was handed a five-year ban from running for provincial office because he missed a deadline set by Elections Alberta. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Stephen Mandel is in a legal fight for his political life.

The Alberta Party leader said he's challenging a ban that prevents him from running for provincial office until 2023. The ban was handed down under election finance laws after Mandel filed financial returns related to his nomination campaign past the deadline.

On Saturday, Mandel told reporters he had applied for the Court of Queen's Bench to review the matter. He will continue campaigning in anticipation of the looming provincial election.

"We think this was a big mistake that was made and the court will correct it and we'll move on," Mandel said.

Mandel said he didn't realize he missed the deadline until he got a letter from Elections Alberta on Jan. 30, telling him he was barred from running for provincial office for five years. The ban is set to expire on Sept. 27, 2023. Mandel will be 79 years old.

Mandel said his chief financial officer, Brian Heidecker, didn't indicate that the return was submitted late when it was filed in September.

"We didn't know we were out of line," he said.

Mandel said Heidecker resigned because of health concerns.

"So, as a result of that, he missed some of the dates and that's part of the reason we're here today," Mandel said.

When asked by reporters when Heidecker resigned, Mandel said he could not recall the exact day.

'A mistake within the legislation'

Five other Alberta Party candidates face the same penalty for filing late returns. The prohibition on running in a provincial election is upped to eight years if a candidate doesn't submit the papers at all.

"They need to go to court, we'll help them go to court," Mandel said, noting that could be in the form of financial help.

Mandel did not reveal any details about a plan for the party if the ban is upheld in court. As of Feb. 1, Premier Rachel Notley can issue the writs to inaugurate the 28-day campaign period leading to an election.

Newly minted leader of the Alberta Party Stephen Mandel is congratulated by the crowd after the vote in Edmonton on Feb. 27, 2018. Mandel was handed a five-year ban on running for provincial politics, throwing into question whether he will get to lead the party in the upcoming election. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Mandel is staring down his first election as the Alberta Party leader. The former Edmonton mayor and health minister in Jim Prentice's cabinet brushed off questions Saturday about whether the ban would shake trust in his leadership.

"I don't think it's a trust issue," he said. "I think it's a mistake within the legislation and we're challenging the legislation. Sometimes legislation is wrong and it needs to be challenged. And this is unfair, it's unreasonable."

Alberta's election finance law requires nomination candidates submit their financial statements within the four months after the nomination contest is held. Mandel's future in provincial politics hinges on an interpretation of when his nomination contest officially ended. 

When does a nomination contest end?

The Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act  is "very clear," said Drew Westwater, deputy chief electoral officer for Alberta. The contest period ends the day the nominee is selected by the party.

Mandel's nomination contest to represent the Alberta Party in Edmonton-McClung took place on May 12, 2018. The four-month clock to file the returns would then expire on Sept. 12, 2018.

But the financial statements were received by Elections Alberta on Sept. 27, two weeks later.

Westwater said Elections Alberta sent Mandel several letters ahead of the deadline with reminders about the due date.

Former Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel announced his candidacy for the Alberta Party in Edmonton in January 2018. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

But Mandel and his lawyers said there is confusion about the deadline. They point, in particular, to a line at the bottom of the financial return form.

"The nomination contest period ... ends two months after the date a person is selected for endorsement as the official candidate for the party," the form reads.

A letter from Miller Thomson LLP, Mandel's legal counsel, to Election Alberta argues the contest technically ended on July 12, two months after the nomination meeting. That would push the deadline to file his return into November.

Mandel's counsel also wrote that the party's own records show Mandel was officially endorsed as the candidate on May 23, which would push the deadline back further to Nov. 23.

But Westwater said there are two distinct periods outlined in the legislation. The contest period starts when the candidate registers with Elections Alberta and ends with the party's endorsement. The campaign period, meanwhile, lasts another two months after the meeting to give candidates an opportunity to fundraise to cover their campaign expenses.

Amendments to election law around nomination contest requirements came into force last year. Mandel said it was the first time those requirements would be challenged in court.

Elections Alberta regularly attends party conferences to explain election law and publishes guidelines on their website, Westwater said. It's part of the office's mandate, he said, to inform and educate candidates as a way to avoid missed deadlines.

"It's unfortunate when these circumstances come about, but we have to follow the legislation if they miss the deadline," Westwater said.