Election commissioner probe into UCP leadership race continues with reprimand, court order

Alberta’s election commissioner continues to investigate the 2017 United Conservative Party leadership contest, handing down a letter of reprimand to “kamikaze” candidate Jeff Callaway’s chief financial officer and obtaining a court order compelling the owner of an Edmonton banquet hall to appear for an interview. 

The CFO, Lenore Eaton, was served the letter for accepting “contributions not belonging to contributor.”

Eaton has already been fined $10,000 for “knowingly” making a false statement on the campaign’s returns and for accepting money from a corporation — Energize Alberta. Corporate donation are banned in Alberta.

Eaton was also the CFO for Energize. 

The commissioner, in earlier findings, alleges $60,000 was given to the campaign by Calgary businessman Robyn Lore through his corporation Agropyron, and then distributed to individual donors who donated to the campaign under their own names. 

Lore and Agropyron have been fined $25,000 for the alleged contributions.

Those fines were slated for a judicial review on Sept. 21, but Lore’s lawyer told CBC News it was adjourned to set a date for a special application “which entails a lengthier hearing.”

No date has been set for that hearing. 

Eaton maintains innocence

Energize Alberta, also controlled by Lore, was fined $18,373 but has failed to pay those fines, according to the commissioner’s website.

“Ms. Eaton maintains her innocence and denies that she had any knowledge of illegal financial contributions,” said her lawyer, Cory Wilson, in response to questions from CBC News. 

“She volunteered for a campaign and trusted the people around her.”

Callaway ran his campaign in collaboration with the race’s eventual winner, Jason Kenney, now the premier, in order to attack the latter’s main rival, former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean.

Callaway then dropped out of the race and endorsed Kenney.

Both men deny they colluded.

However, CBC News has obtained emails and documents that outline the collaboration, including a resignation speech emailed to Callaway’s team from Kenney’s then-deputy chief of staff and current director of issues management, Matt Wolf.

Roger Sarna ordered to appear

A separate investigation into the leadership race is also ongoing within the commissioner’s office. 

Bhupinder “Roger” Sarna, owner of the Aria Banquet Hall in Edmonton, was fined $20,000 this summer for obstructing an investigation of the election commissioner. 

His fine has now been reduced to $4,000, but he has also been ordered by the Court of Queen’s Bench to appear for an interview with the investigators. 

Sarna did not return a request for comment on Wednesday, and did not returns calls when CBC News first reported on his fines. 

The banquet hall owned by Sarna is tied to an ongoing election commissioner investigation into the 2017 United Conservative Party leadership contest. 

Tariq Chaudhry hosted two Eid events there for Kenney.

The events happened in 2017, as Kenney was running for the leadership of the newly formed UCP, and in 2018, as he set his sights on the premier’s office.

While the details of the fine against Sarna aren’t known, details of Chaudhry’s complaints are well established. 

Alleged payment of memberships

Chaudhry sent a letter of complaint to the election commissioner in December 2018, alleging he signed up hundreds of new party members to vote for Kenney as leader — and paid for many of their memberships, himself, in violation of party rules.

He also said in the letter he was never reimbursed for the banquets he was asked to organize. 

Receipts show he paid $21,076 to Aria Banquets for the two events: one in September 2017 and another in June 2018.

He also says he paid $6,000 out of his own pocket in membership fees for 600 of the 1,200 new members he signed up.

Chaudhry alleges in a sworn affidavit that he attempted to give the money for the members he signed up directly to Kenney at one of the events he hosted.

“Mr. Kenney asked the $6,000 I had be paid in cash and told me he would arrange from someone to pick up the same at my home at another time,” he wrote. 

Party rules forbid paying for the memberships of others.

Communication stopped

Chaudhry says Kenney and the party stopped returning his calls and texts after he hosted the second event. 

None of Chaudhry’s allegations have been proven in court. 

CBC News has confirmed an email was sent to Chaudhry at that time by Dave Jennings, an investigator at the office of the election commissioner.

“I’ve recently been assigned a file relating to your complaint to our office regarding Jason Kenney’s campaign(s) in 2017 and 2018,” reads the email, dated July 30, 2019.

“Specifically, the allegations are that he had you buy UCP memberships and put on events that were not properly paid back or claimed/expensed.”

The email says Chaudhry is not under investigation.

The RCMP are also investigating allegations of fraud the 2017 leadership race.

CBC News recently confirmed that Wolf, the premier’s director of issues management, was interviewed this summer, but the premier’s office said he was not considered a subject of the investigation.

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