EDMONTON - Alberta's opposition parties say the way Premier Alison Redford responds to a leaked plan by her party to fight the next election with illegal donations is a litmus test of her leadership.
And so far, they said Friday, she's failing.
"This is about making restitution to the people of Alberta who had money stolen from them," said NDP critic Rachel Notley.
"The leader needs to take responsibility. I understand this premier is offended at the notion of taking responsibility for her mistakes and tries to do everything she can to avoid it.
"But in this particular case she needs to, because she's been grossly disrespectful to the people of Alberta."
A leaked telephone call between Progressive Conservative party brass indicates a Tory plan to hold on to $40,000 in illegal campaign donations. Party executive Kelley Charlebois is heard saying that the need to keep the money to help fight the 2016 election outweighs any negative publicity.
Redford said in Calgary on Friday that she would not intervene because the matter is between the party and chief electoral officer Brian Fjeldheim.
"What I’ve encouraged the party to do is to co-operate fully in every way with the chief electoral officer on all matters," the premier said.
"My understanding is that continues to be an ongoing discussion, and I think I’d leave it there."
But Notley — along with critics from the Wildrose and Liberal parties — said Redford can't turn a blind eye.
"It's quite telling that the PC party is willing to run a campaign on illegal contributions. That shouldn't happen in any western democracy," said Wildrose party critic Shayne Saskiw.
The obvious solution is for the party to admit its mistake and pay the money back — and it's incumbent on Redford to make them do the right thing, he said.
"It goes to her moral authority to govern."
Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said he was surprised the premier and leader of the PC party was distancing herself from the issue.
"It's a lack of her leadership," he said. "She cannot walk away from this. She has to fix it. That's what leaders do."
Portions of the undated leaked call aired by Global TV on Thursday night have Charlebois referring to contributions the party received before 2010.
Charlebois is heard to say that Fjeldheim wants the party to pay back $40,000 in illegal donations, but can't compel the party to do so because they were made before 2010.
Party repayments of such contributions have been mandatory since then.
"We're of the mind as a party not to repay the voluntary amount," Charlebois says. "Repaying the money does us no good in the court of public opinion.
"I have to look at the bottom line, and I'm concerned about us repaying thousands and thousands of dollars that we need for (the) 2016 (election)."
The PC party said Friday that Charlebois would not be commenting.
Party president Jim McCormick declined to comment on the phone recording. He said it was a private conversation and the recording was "unauthorized."
But he did say his party would not campaign with any ill-gotten money.
The $40,000 phone call was one of two matters on election campaign financing that came to light Thursday.
The other was Fjeldheim's report on 45 cases of illegal contributions to the Tories between 2010 and 2011 from towns, municipalities, school boards and other publicly funded organizations.
The money — a total of $20,280 — paid for tickets to PC fundraisers and golf tournaments.
Critics have said the number of violations shows a pattern of strong-arm tactics to get cash for the PC party from the agencies funded by the government.
The PCs have repaid all but $2,625 which is tied to three so-called indirect contributions where donors gave money to the Tories out of their own pockets and were reimbursed by a municipality or school board.
Taxpayer-funded entities are not allowed by law to contribute to partisan political groups.
The PCs say responsibility for the indirect contributions lies with the donor and whoever made the reimbursement — not with the party.
McCormick is challenging whether he has to pay back the indirect contributions. He characterized discussions with Fjeldheim as no different from a person's right to dispute any order such as a parking ticket.
"The ongoing conversations we're having with Elections Alberta are aimed at clarity," said McCormick.
NDP Leader Brian Mason has said the Tories are contesting repayment of the indirect contributions because they are looking for wiggle room in case they have to return $430,000 donated to them last spring by billionaire Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz, his family and associates.
The PC party has said Katz and those around him collectively contributed the $430,000 with no one donor exceeding the $30,000 limit. But Fjeldheim's office is exploring reports Katz paid the entire amount himself.
There's been no indication of when that investigation will conclude.
— With files from Bill Graveland in Calgary