Peter Penashue quits over campaign donations
Embattled Conservative cabinet minister pays back $30,000, resigns seat to run in byelection
Conservative cabinet minister Peter Penashue has resigned his seat in the House of Commons to run again in a byelection, he announced Thursday in a news release, and has paid the government $30,000 in compensation for "ineligible contributions" he accepted.
And while he blamed volunteer Reg Bowers for problems with his 2011 election campaign, Bowers said he still believes in Penashue.
Bowers, however, resigned his seat on a federal board shortly after speaking to CBC News.
Despite two resignations and the $30,000 repayment, it's still not clear whether voters in Labrador will know what happened before they go to the polls.
Penashue said in a statement that he's proud of his record as an MP and a minister in the Conservative government since he was elected to represent Labrador in 2011.
"Due to mistakes that were made by an inexperienced volunteer in filing the Elections Canada return from the last campaign, I appointed a new official agent to work with Elections Canada to make any needed amendments to my campaign return," he said in the statement.
"During the examination, we became aware that there were ineligible donations accepted by the former official agent."
Penashue said he didn't know about the problems with the return, which included incomplete records.
'Right out of the blue'
Bowers was appointed by the Conservative government after the election to sit on the board of the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board.
CBC News has reported Penashue may have overspent his election limit and records suggest he may have accepted a corporate donation, which is illegal under Canadian law.
A spokesman for the Conservative Party says Penashue has "reimbursed the Receiver General [the federal government] for the ineligible contributions received" and confirmed that they added up to $30,000.
Before the Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board announced he had resigned, Bowers told CBC News that he was surprised by Penashue's resignation.
"This is right out of the blue," he said.
"I found out when you did."
Harper cabinet departures
Peter Penashue's resignation as intergovernmental affairs minister makes him the sixth member of Stephen Harper's cabinet to leave amid controversy, and the second in the last month. Here's a look at the others:
2013: John Duncan resigns as aboriginal affairs minister over a letter he sent to a tax court on behalf of a constituent. Bernard Valcourt was appointed in his place.
2012: Bev Oda resigns as minister of international co-operation and an MP after months of controversy over her travel expenses.
2010: Helena Guergis resigns as minister of state for the status of women after allegations about her conduct and that of her husband, ex-MP Rahim Jaffer. Harper also removed her from the Conservative caucus, and she was defeated by the Conservative candidate in the 2011 election. Guergis sued Harper and several others over the matter but her suit was dismissed by a judge. Guergis has appealed the decision.
2008: Maxime Bernier resigns as foreign affairs minister after leaving sensitive documents in his girlfriend's home. He returned to cabinet in 2011 as minister of state for small business.
2006: Michael Chong resigns as intergovernmental affairs minister and two other positions in protest against Harper's motion on Québécois as a nation. Chong continues to serve as the Conservative MP for Wellington-Halton Hills.
Two other ministers, Jim Prentice (Environment) and Gregory Thompson (Veterans Affairs), resigned posts in 2010 because they were leaving politics or didn't intend to run in the next election.
Bowers said he had been considering whether to resign from the CNLOPB and that he'd been trying for weeks to find out what's going on with the review by Elections Canada. The Conservatives replaced him in 2012 with their own chief financial officer, Sandra Troster.
It's a sad day, Bowers said.
"I don't want to be a distraction for Peter... I worked so hard to get that man elected."
"I still believe in Peter Penashue."
'Element of trust that is broken'
Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Canada's former chief electoral officer, says it's not possible to say these are small breaches of the law.
"If they were small, I don't think that the minister would have resigned. He's resigning because there is obviously a substance to this issue here and I think he's doing the honourable thing by doing that. The Elections Act is meant to protect Canadians during the election process and when that is broken, there's an element of trust that is broken and the law requires that something be done," Kingsley said.
He also said it's the candidate who's responsible at the end of the day.
"The official agent files the report, but the candidate has to sign a statement to the effect that this is a true statement. And therefore the obligation is on both in that instance. And if you're able to demonstrate that the candidate knew that something was amiss, then you've got the candidate responsible."
While Elections Canada investigates possible breaches of the Canada Elections Act, it's up to the agency to recommend charges to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who then decides whether to charge someone. Kingsley said he hopes the process moves quickly.
"I certainly hope that the public prosecutor hurries up on these files," he said.
It's not clear whether the process will be complete before the byelection, the date for which Prime Minister Stephen Harper will choose. Harper has six months to announce the byelection date, but he can set it for whenever he chooses.
'Vindication' for voters
The 2011 Liberal candidate, who lost to Penashue by 79 votes, said Penashue stepping down is vindication for anyone in Labrador who called for another election.
"Nobody resigns a cabinet post if they feel they've done nothing wrong," former MP Todd Russell told CBC News.
"This is an opportunity for the people of Labrador to have their say with fairness."
Russell said he needs to take a few days to consider whether he'll run for the seat he held from 2005 to 2011. He is now president of Nunatukavut, a group representing the Métis in Labrador.
Jack Harris, a New Democrat MP for St. John's East, pointed to other Conservative election scandals and called it "a big stain against their ethical standards."
"This is not just about Peter Penashue. This is about the Conservative Party's ethical standards," he said.
"This is a clear admission that they broke the elections laws, so they're going to stand behind this?"
A spokesman for the Conservative Party confirmed Penashue will be their candidate in the byelection.
"If Newfoundland and Labrador want to continue to have a strong voice within government they need to re-elect him as the member of Parliament for Labrador," Fred DeLorey said in an emailed statement.
Airline wrote off thousands of dollars
In October, CBC News reported that Elections Canada records showed Penashue's campaign couldn't afford the flights he took around the large, sparsely populated riding, so Provincial Airlines wrote off $17,000 in plane tickets. Corporate donations are illegal in Canada.
The election campaign records, which each candidate is required by law to file, show repeated cash flow problems with Penashue's campaign. Aside from the flights that were written off, his campaign bounced cheques and finally took a $25,000 loan from an Innu group run by his brother-in-law.
CBC News calculated Penashue had overspent his campaign limit by about 21 per cent.
Election records show the campaign and Innu Development Limited Partnership hadn't set an interest rate for the loan until months after the election was over. Loans to election candidates must be subject to interest or the interest is considered to be a contribution.
CBC News later reported that a deposit slip included in the records suggested Pennecon, a St. John's-based construction company, donated to his campaign. The deposit slip included a single entry for Pennecon but receipts were issued to several members of the company's board.
A statement from Prime Minister Stephen Harper thanked Penashue for his service and announced Transport Minister Denis Lebel would take over Penashue's previous role as intergovernmental affairs minister.
With files from Vik Adhopia