Edmonton·Reporter's notebook

The nomination controversy in Edmonton-Meadowlark

CBC legislature reporter John Archer tells the story of one of the most bizarre days he's experienced in more than a decade of covering Alberta politics.
Katherine O'Neill, Steve Benson and Tom Choucair were the three candidates in the PC nomination in Edmonton-Meadowlark. Choucair was disqualified by the PC party on Friday. (CBC )

In the time I have spent covering politics in Alberta, the events of Friday afternoon are among the most bizarre I have experienced.  

The Progressive Conservatives in Edmonton-Meadowlark are scheduled to elect a candidate for the next election on Saturday.

The best way to describe what happened is through a timeline detailing the phone calls, emails and statements.

Legislature reporter John Archer. (CBC )
Full disclosure -- Katherine O’Neill was a colleague of mine in the Alberta Legislature Press Gallery when she was a reporter with The Globe & Mail.  Since she announced her candidacy for the PC nomination in Edmonton-Meadowlark earlier this year, we haven’t corresponded via e-mail or talked on the phone.

Steve Benson is someone I had never spoken with at all. I also had never talked to Tom Choucair.

On Friday, I spoke with all three...and others.

8:08 AM

I got a tip saying I should inquire about an affidavit Steve Benson had filed recently with the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta. Benson is a candidate for the party’s nomination in Edmonton-Meadowlark.

8:41 AM

After finding Benson’s campaign website, I called him to ask about the affidavit. He told me he wasn’t prepared to share the information with me, but may have more to say “after the vote.” I told him I understood his position, but that I would be following up with the PC party.

8:52 AM

I placed my first call to the media contact with the PCAA and left a voicemail message explaining that I hoped to get some information about an affidavit that had been filed with the party from a candidate in the Edmonton-Meadowlark race.

2:04 PM

I received an email with an attached statement from the Benson campaign (not from the candidate himself). It was sent to the PCAA members in Edmonton-Meadowlark, explaining that he had received calls from reporters (not just me) asking about his affidavit. In the statement, Benson explained that he had, indeed, filed an affidavit with party officials. He claims that someone from another campaign called him and offered him cash to cover his campaign expenses if he dropped out of the race. Benson says it was a backroom deal he wanted no part of and rejected outright. He also claims that another campaign sent out an e-mail asking members to bring proof of citizenship when they vote. Benson also claims many supporters have told him they have not received their PC memberships but that party officials would have a master list at the Saturday poll.

3:15 PM

I received a call from the Benson campaign ensuring the statement’s authenticity. I asked again if I could see the affidavit, but was told they weren’t prepared to release it.

3:22 PM

I called Katherine O’Neill to tell her about Benson’s claims. She said she was unaware of the allegations and wanted to see the statement.  I e-mailed it to her and included my cell phone number in the subject line so that she could call me back. A few minutes later, I talked to Tom Choucair as well.  He also wasn’t aware of the allegations so I sent him the statement as well.

3:32 PM

Katherine O’Neill called me back and said her campaign needed to review the allegations before she was prepared to comment. She said I would receive a statement from her campaign in response.

3:48 PM

My phone rang and when I answered the person asked to speak to Katherine. I asked who was calling and it was Patricia Misutka, someone I am more familiar with as the principal secretary in the office of the premier. I asked why she was trying to reach a candidate in a PC nomination race the day before the vote. Misutka told me she is on the nomination committee and had been asked for assistance from the O’Neill campaign to respond to my questions. When I asked if she was at work at the legislature, she told me she was at home sick on her couch. I had seen her earlier in the day at an event with the Premier, but she had gone home to rest after that.

3:59 PM

The O’Neill campaign released a statement saying the candidate was “In no way...associated with the serious allegations…” and that the campaign was “confident the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta will address them thoroughly before tomorrow’s vote.”

4:43 PM

I called the Benson campaign and spoke briefly with the candidate. I asked if he had ever asked for or received assistance from Patricia Misutka with information about his campaign. He told me he hadn’t and had only met her once.

4:49 PM

My phone rang and when I answered the person asked to speak to Katherine. The call display said the call was from Kim Krushell, the former Edmonton city councillor. She was also looking to help respond to questions from the O’Neill campaign. It was hard to understand too much of the conversation because there wasn’t a good signal from where Krushell was calling. I found out later that she is also on the nomination committee for the PC party.

4:55 PM

I became aware that my original e-mail to the O’Neill campaign had been shared with the PC nomination committee as well as a number of media outlets in Edmonton. Not only was my auto-signature still at the bottom of the e-mail, but my cell number was still included in the subject line. That’s why both Misutka and Krushell had called me by mistake.

5:28 PM

The PC Alberta Nomination Committee released a statement saying Tom Choucair would be disqualified from the nomination race. It went on to say the vote would proceed with Katherine O’Neill and Steve Benson as candidates.

5:50 PM

Katherine O’Neill called me to talk about all that had happened. I asked her why the e-mail I sent her earlier in the day had been shared with the nomination committee and members of the media without removing my cell number and auto-signature. She told me she had no involvement with that because she had spent the afternoon working on her campaign and talking to people on the phone. O’Neill told me her campaign manager Jenny Adams was responsible for sharing that information with others.

6:00 PM

Tom Choucair called, telling me he was “devastated” at being kicked out of the nomination race, something he had worked towards for over two years. When I asked if he or anyone on his campaign tried to influence Benson to drop out, he said “never.” Choucair told me he received a phone call from a member of the nomination committee and was told he was “not the type of candidate they wanted.” The statement from the party does not go into detail about the reasons why he was dropped from the ballot the day before the vote and says PC Alberta will have no further comment.

6:05 PM

The manager of the O’Neill campaign, Jenny Adams called me to apologize for sending my e-mail to as many people as she did without removing my cell phone number. She explained this was the first campaign she had ever run and was frustrated with how there was controversy at such a sensitive time just before the vote. I asked what her reaction was to Choucair’s disqualification, but she would only say her focus was on the O’Neill campaign and ensuring there is nothing that will impinge upon the reputation of her candidate.

The vote for the PC nomination in Edmonton-Meadowlark is scheduled for Saturday, March 14 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at the La Perle Community League Hall (18611 97A Ave).