Elections Alberta to investigate huge donations to Conservatives by Oilers owner Daryl Katz
EDMONTON - Alberta’s chief electoral officer has decided to launch an investigation into the legality of donations made to the Progressive Conservatives by Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz, his family and business associates during the spring election.
After reviewing the party’s financial statements from the campaign, along with opposition complaints about the donations, “sufficient concern has been raised about alleged violations of the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act,” Elections Alberta spokesman Drew Westwater said late Tuesday in an email to the Journal.
“Therefore, based on the information contained in the requests for investigation we have received from various sources, many of them known to the general public and news media, we have determined that an investigation by this office of the alleged offence is warranted.”
Westwater indicated the investigation will look into the allegation the Tories accepted a “single-source donation” over the $30,000 limit.
The PCs’ statement shows Katz, three family members, his company and executives with the Katz Group collectively donated $300,000 to the party during the campaign. Those donations came in $25,000 or $30,000 increments.
However, the Globe and Mail has reported, using an anonymous source, that Katz provided a single $430,000 cheque to the PCs that was broken up into smaller pieces.
While Premier Alison Redford has said she is confident her party complied with all election financing rules, opposition parties have characterized the donations as suspicious. They have called on the PCs to release copies of any cheques received from Katz, his family and business associates, but the party has so far declined.
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, whose party was the first to file a complaint with Elections Alberta, said she expects those cheques will now be a central focus of the agency’s probe.
“We have received assurances from the electoral office that they have not pre-judged this investigation, and I am glad they have launched one because I think we need to clear the air,” she said. “They have to see backup documentation, deposit slips and cheques to make sure that people donated their own money.
“If they haven’t, it’s in clear violation of the law and there needs to be a prosecution.”
Westwater told the Journal last week that donors sometimes write cheques above $30,000, which is legal under certain circumstances.
For example, a couple with a joint banking account could write a single cheque for $60,000 if they both want to make a $30,000 contribution. But a cheque could not come from an individual’s account on behalf of two people.
“The same sort of rules apply on the corporate level for private companies or corporations that have shareholders, and possibly shareholder loan agreements or dividend payments,” Westwater said. “Those individuals can direct the funds wherever they want. That could come back to a party through a corporate cheque that is not from a corporation, it is from those individuals.”
A spokesman for the PC Association could not be reached for comment. Executive director Kelley Charlebois said last week the party does not talk about specific donations, though the office makes sure “any cheques that are received have the appropriate donors and the appropriate amounts related to them.”
The party sometimes gets a single cheque representing donations from multiple donors, but in those cases it has to be clear who the donations are from, he said.
“There has to be a certain level of information because we have to be able to issue a receipt. To do that, we have to have addresses and contact information. You couldn’t just say, ‘It’s my dad,’” he said.
A spokesman for Katz declined to comment Tuesday.
It’s unknown how long the investigation could take, though Westwater’s email said the agency hopes to have it concluded “in a timely fashion.”
Also unclear is how much information the chief electoral officer, Brian Fjeldheim, can release once his investigation is complete. A bill set to be introduced in the legislature this fall is expected to deal with that issue, after Fjeldheim indicated current legislation prevented him from naming institutions he found to have made illegal political donations.
Opposition parties have spent the past week hammering the Tories over the donations, noting Katz has been seeking $100 million in funding for a downtown arena, as well as provincial help to obtain gaming revenue to offset operational costs of the facility.
Those attacks continued in the chamber on Tuesday, as opposition critics called into question a move to increase pharmacists’ fees and whether ministers were lobbied by Katz’s company.
NDP Leader Brian Mason was among the most vigorous accusers in question period, linking Katz’s influence and money to a recent decision to increase pharmacists’ fees for giving an injection to $20 from $10.93.
The change was made July 1, about two months after the April 23 election when Katz, his family and executives made their donations.
Besides owning the Oilers, the Katz Group is considered a major player in the drugstore market under its flagship brand, Rexall.
Mason said the fee increase will help pharmacies’ profitability, since the fees are paid to the businesses. He noted the province pays doctor’s offices $10.30 for nurses to give the same shots.
“We’re well aware of how the government has sweetened the deal for pharmacies, including those owned by Mr. Katz,” he told the chamber. “Given the financial benefit of this sweetheart deal to Mr. Katz, among others, does the premier acknowledge that her government has placed itself in a serious conflict of interest by accepting a massive donation from Mr. Katz, his family and his associates?”
Redford and Health Minister Fred Horne said changes to pharmacists’ services and fees were contemplated well before any donations were received. The increase was done to encourage more pharmacists to use the full scope of skills they are trained for, freeing up doctors and nurses to concentrate on other health matters.
“I think this is desperate attempt to score some cheap political points,” Horne said. “Whether he (Mason) intended it or not, he’s tarring all pharmacists with his comments.”
The Wildrose also got in on the debate, asking for details on any meetings ministers or senior officials have held with Katz Group representatives. Smith said such meetings sounded like lobbying, even though the Katz Group and Rexall have no registered lobbyists listed in Alberta.
Finance Minister Doug Horner said he would provide dates, since he consistently meets with business leaders. He said one of the meetings happened when he was approached at a social event.
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