01/31/2013 10:43 EST | Updated 04/02/2013 05:12 EDT

Elections Alberta Illegal Donations: Towns, Counties, Schools Fined For Illegally Donating To PCs

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EDMONTON - Critics say thousands of dollars in illegal donations from towns, cities and schools to Alberta Premier Alison Redford's party are proof of institutionalized political corruption and kickbacks.

"This is a system that has been established in order to shake down public institutions and have taxpayers' money flow to the Progressive Conservative party," NDP Leader Brian Mason said after 45 cases of illegal contributions were released Thursday.

"If you don't pay, you don't play."

Chief electoral officer Brian Fjeldheim made public details of the donations to the Tories that totalled $20,280 in 2010-11. He ordered most of the money be paid back and also levied fines amounting to $7,060.

Opposition Wildrose critic Shayne Saskiw said his party believes Fjeldheim is quietly demanding the Tories repay another $70,000 in illegal donations made to them prior to 2010.

Saskiw said the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta must pay it all back immediately.

"This is a deep-rooted practice within the PC party," said Saskiw. "They use bullying tactics to extract donations from public institutions that rely on them — the government — for funding.

"After 41 years (in power), they have established a culture of corruption that exchanges government support for money and political favours."

No other political parties were found to have violated donation rules.

The contributions were, for the most part, a few hundred dollars each for tickets to fundraising dinners and golf tournaments. Donors represented all parts of the province. Towns included Sylvan Lake, St. Paul, Whitecourt and High River.

Other donors included Westlock County, Woodlands County, MacKenzie County, Bow Valley College, Portage College and Grande Prairie Regional College.

The Town of Whitecourt directly contributed $1,945 to the PCs on five separate occasions for fundraisers and a golf tournament.

Grande Prairie Regional College illegally donated $1,350 by buying six tickets to one fundraiser in October 2010.

Taxpayer-funded entities such as schools and municipalities are not allowed by law to contribute to partisan political entities.

Most of the fines were levied for direct contributions, which Fjeldheim defined as both parties having known — or ought to have known — that the contribution was illegal.

Some of the cases were indirect contributions where donors paid out of their own pockets and, presumably without the party's knowledge, were reimbursed by a municipality or school board.

There were $9,450 in indirect contributions, about half of all illegal contributions reported by Fjeldheim.

PC party president Jim McCormick could not be reached for comment. In a news release, the party stated that all but $2,625 of the original $20,280 has been paid back as per Fjeldheim's direction.

Fjeldheim said repayment of the final $2,625, involving three illegal donations, is optional.

The Tories are fighting that repayment on the grounds they should not be held responsible for the wrongful actions of others.

"PC Alberta continues to have serious concerns with Elections Alberta's opinion on mandatory repayment of personal donations received in good faith," said the news release.

Premier Redford's office declined comment and referred all calls to McCormick.

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said the issue goes beyond an ingrained culture of loyalty after four decades of PC government.

When it comes to the levers of powers, Tory loyalists are everywhere, Sherman suggested.

"These are PC insiders who are on the agencies, boards and commissions and councils of these institutions. It's about political cronyism."

Fjeldheim's news release represents the first stage of open reporting on election violations.

In years past, he had said the Election Act prohibited him from releasing details of investigations, including fines and repayments. The Redford government didn't agree, but changed the act late last year to be clear. The amendment also allows Fjeldheim to retroactively publicize details from investigations going back three years to December 2009.

Fjeldheim said there will be other updates as investigations continue. A review of donations made by Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz continues, he said, but he declined to say when that will wrap up.

Katz, his family and associates contributed $430,000 to Redford's Progressive Conservatives during last year's spring election. Each contributed the maximum $30,000, but Fjeldheim's office began investigating following allegations that Katz broke the rules by contributing the whole $430,000 himself, then spreading out the donations among those around him to stay within the cap.

Mason said he believes the Tories are fighting the principle of repayment because they're worried the Katz donation will also be ruled out of order, which would force the party to return close to half a million dollars.

Katz has never commented. But one of the donors, John Karvellas, said he contributed because he felt the PCs were the best option to govern.

Karvellas was Katz's lead negotiator in a recent deal with the City of Edmonton to build a new hockey rink for the Oilers. All parties are still hoping for a direct $107-million contribution from the province for the project.

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