UCP Leader Jason Kenney shrugs off RCMP investigation of political contributions

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney is shrugging off revelations that the RCMP have taken over an investigation into allegations of “irregular political contributions” to a former UCP leadership candidate with alleged connections to Kenney’s leadership campaign.

Political scientist says growing scandal could harm UCP election campaign

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney held a campaign-style news conference Friday at an Edmonton bakery. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney is shrugging off revelations that the RCMP have taken over an investigation into allegations of "irregular political contributions" to a former UCP leadership candidate with alleged connections to Kenney's leadership campaign.

But a political scientist said the timing of the growing scandal couldn't be worse for the UCP and its leader.

"It becomes a question of how much did Mr. Kenney know and when did he know It," University of Alberta political scientist Jared Wesley said Friday.

"And that is not a set of questions that any political leader wants to be answering heading into an election campaign."

Earlier Friday, CBC News revealed Alberta's election commissioner has turned over to the RCMP his investigation into alleged irregular political contributions to former UCP leadership contender Jeff Callaway.

Kenney's 2017 UCP leadership win was tainted by allegations his campaign ran Callaway as a so-called "kamikaze" candidate to attack and undermine Kenney's main rival, former Wildrose leader Brian Jean.

Callaway dropped out of the leadership race before the vote and endorsed Kenney. Both men have denied their campaigns colluded to undermine Jean.

Several UCP members formally complained to the election commissioner's office that numerous people donated to Callaway's campaign using money that was supplied to them, which is illegal.

The commissioner, Lorne Gibson, launched an investigation and has fined one person $3,500 for making a donation using money from someone else. Gibson fined another former Callaway campaign manager, Cameron Davies, $15,000 for obstructing his office's investigation.

In a statement issued Friday through his lawyer, Davies said he did not obstruct the election commissioner's investigation.

"Mr. Davies denies any wrongdoing in this matter," the statement said. "On advice of legal counsel, he will not be making a statement to the police."

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A March 9 email from Gibson's office to one of the complainants — obtained by CBC News — revealed the commissioner's investigation has "identified potential violations that fall outside of the jurisdiction of our office and, as a result, the RCMP are now engaged." The email said the RCMP's serious crimes branch has taken over the investigation.

Two former UCP politicians also confirmed they have spoken with RCMP investigators. Callaway has not responded to interview requests.

At an election-style labour policy announcement at an Edmonton bakery Friday, Kenney brushed aside reporters' questions about the growing scandal and police investigation.

"This is not about our campaign; it is about someone else's leadership campaign from 18 months ago," Kenney said, adding later in the news conference that "all I can tell you is that the campaign that I ran was in full compliance with all of the financial and legal requirements."

Party did nothing, Brian Jean alleges

Jean posted a statement on his Facebook page Friday in which he alleged the RCMP investigation confirms his fears about the Callaway campaign from 18 months ago.

"I wrote long detailed emails about this mess to Jason Kenney in December, and Jason Kenney and the UCP board in February," he said. "In December, I sent Stephen Harper a note about one of his staff being involved.

"Nobody called me back," Jean continued. "Nothing was done. People involved in this mess were kept on payroll and remained candidates.

"In politics, perception is reality. And this perception isn't great."

At the news conference, Kenney refuted those allegations, saying he raised Jean's concerns with the party's president, and asked his office's staff in November 2018 to talk to the staff of his leadership campaign to see if there was anything to the allegations of improper donations.

"And the result of those inquiries was that nobody was aware of, had heard anything about, or in any way participated in such activity," Kenney said.

Kenney said Callaway's former co-campaign manager, Randy Kerr, told his staff he wasn't aware of anything problematic.

But Kenney last week said the party learned otherwise. On March 6, the UCP removed Kerr as its candidate for Calgary-Beddington for not being forthright about his $4,000 contribution to the Callaway campaign, and Kenney said that information has been provided to the election commissioner.

During Friday's news conference, Kenney was asked what he knew as party leader about the extent of the scandal, given that a party member had been fined for an illegal donation.

Kenney said he didn't know much, an answer that didn't surprise political scientist Jared Wesley.

"He is kind of caught between a rock and a hard place with his response to that question," Wesley said. "Either he did know about it and he has some culpability in it, or he didn't know about it and probably should have, as a leader of the party."

Notley has her own questions

At an event in Calgary in Friday, Premier Rachel Notley pounced on the revelation that the RCMP have taken over the investigation into the so-called kamikaze scandal.

"I think the real question to ask here is why was it that Mr. Kenney was so adamant that we call the election as soon as possible," Notley said.

"I think, quite frankly, he was hoping that the election could be done and dusted before this stuff started to come out."

The legislative session resumes on Monday with the throne speech. Wesley said this escalation in the scandal may result in the Notley government delaying an election call while it waits for the RCMP investigation to potentially produce more political fallout.

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Charles Rusnell, Jennie Russell

Former investigative reporters

Jennie Russell and Charles Rusnell were reporters with CBC Investigates, the investigative unit of CBC Edmonton. They left CBC in 2021. Their journalism in the public interest is widely credited with forcing accountability, transparency and democratic change in Alberta.