03/13/2015 04:29 EDT | Updated 05/14/2015 05:59 EDT

MLA Naresh Bhardwaj To Step Aside During Bribery Investigation


EDMONTON - An associate minister has agreed to step out of the Alberta cabinet while allegations of bribery and tampering with nomination papers are investigated, Premier Jim Prentice said Friday.

Meanwhile, a second set of allegations also surfaced Friday regarding a Conservative nomination in a separate constituency.

In the first case, media reports alleged that Naresh Bhardwaj, associate minister for persons with disabilities, offered a bribe to undermine the nomination papers of a rival.

Balraj Manhas was to run against Bhardwaj for the Progressive Conservative nomination in the Edmonton-Ellerslie constituency.

The reports detailed the claims of a Manhas supporter, Balbir Sidhu, who says he was offered $10,000 to say that his name had improperly appeared on the nomination papers of Manhas.

Another Manhas supporter, Bilal Ali, says he was misled by Bhardwaj to sign a document making similar claims.

Bhardwaj vehemently denied the allegations and said he has hired a lawyer to challenge them.

"I intend to completely clear my name," he said in a written statement released to the media Friday.

"Out of my respect for the premier and my cabinet colleagues who must be able to focus on the very important matters in front of them, I have offered to step away from the cabinet table both so there is no inappropriate reflection of this matter on my cabinet colleagues, and so that I have maximum time to work on these matters with my legal counsel."

Prentice said Bhardwaj will remain in caucus.

"While these allegations remain unproven, they must be treated seriously," Prentice said in a release.

The Progressive Conservative Party has said it is investigating the allegations, but the NDP has called for an independent probe.

Wildrose justice critic Shayne Saskiw said Bhardwaj's decision to step aside from his cabinet post was appropriate.

Manhas said the party called him two days before the nomination vote, telling him his papers had irregularities and asked him to drop out of the race.

In a separate development Friday, a Tory candidate in the riding of Edmonton-Meadowlark alleged he had been offered money to drop out of the race, according to media reports.

Steve Benson did not name names, but later in the afternoon, the Conservative Party announced that it had "decided to disallow the candidacy of Tom Choucair in Edmonton-Meadowlark."

Benson and Katherine O'Neill remain in the race, with the vote scheduled to take place Saturday night.

"This will be PC Alberta's only comment on the subject," said a release issued by the Conservative Party.

(The Canadian Press, CHED)

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