Alberta's chief electoral officer is now investigating more than 50 cases of alleged illegal donations to political parties - and actively weighing how best to penalize those responsible.
According to Elections Alberta, it has opened 61 files since the issue exploded last fall over accusations that "prohibited corporations" - public institutions such as municipalities and school boards that are barred from making partisan donations - had given money to the ruling Progressive Conservative party or its constituency associations.
Elections Alberta spokesman Drew Westwater said there are 52 open investigations, while nine files have been closed because no wrongdoing took place.
In some of the open cases, a party or constituency association has already voluntarily returned donations, he said.
However, there are no cases so far where the chief electoral officer has directed a party to return money, imposed administrative penalties on prohibited corporations or referred a case to Alberta Justice for prosecution.
Westwater said some cases almost certainly involve illegal donations and Elections Alberta is gathering "conclusive evidence."
"We're just getting all the facts and figures together to determine what sort of penalty we're going to levy," said Westwater, who noted some cases will likely involve no sanction.
"We can choose to - or not to - penalize, depending on the circumstances, the facts that we find. If it's inadvertent and it's a one-time thing versus something that's repeated and overly public and deliberate, that's something different."
Elections Alberta is not providing details about any of the specific cases, saying it's bound by provincial legislation that severely limits information it can make public.
Of the 61 cases launched since last fall, 26 stemmed from complaints made to the chief electoral officer, while 24 were brought forward voluntarily by a prohibited corporation or party.
The remaining 11 cases were launched by Elections Alberta itself based on a review of financial records it had received.
While the public complaints have involved the Progressive Conservatives, not all the cases under review involve the Tories, Westwater said.
The chief electoral officer can recommend prosecution for cases going back three years, though it is up to Alberta Justice whether charges are laid.
The independent elections agency can only order parties or constituency associations to return money if the donation occurred before April 2010, when legislation was amended to give the office that power.
Kelley Charlebois, interim executive director of the PC party, said the Tories intend to return money it received from Calgary Laboratory Services, which is a prohibited corporation because it is a subsidiary of Alberta Health Services.
Public donation records show CLS gave $850 to the Tories in each of 2009 and 2010, as well as $3,000 in 2004.
Charlebois said this is the only case involving a direct donation to the party. Other situations involve local constituency associations.
"There are some who have found mistakes in having accepted money they should not have and have started to return that money," he said.
The donation issue has become political dynamite in recent months, with opposition parties zeroing in on what they allege is a "culture of corruption" fostered by the 41-year Tory dynasty.
"This culture permeates just about every issue Alberta faces today, from energy to health care to education," Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson said in a statement Monday.
Political scientist Duane Bratt of Mount Royal University said the donation issue by itself would likely pose little problem for the government since the dollar figures are generally quite low.
But combined with other accusations against the Tories, such as intimidation of doctors and local officials, or favouritism for the politically connected, it potentially becomes politically dangerous, he said.
Bratt said he's surprised the number of investigations by Elections Alberta is as low as it is.
"I don't doubt that every constituency has received an improper donation. And part of that is some of these groups are unaware of what the rules are," he said.
Charlebois said it can often be difficult for constituency associations, staffed by volunteers, to tell when a donation is improper.
Many cases involve municipal or school officials buying tickets to Tory fundraisers as individuals and later being reimbursed by their local institution. In those cases, there is no way an association, or even the party, can tell it is paid for by the municipality or school division, he said.
"In most cases, those are fairly innocent mistakes. And where I get offended is when another political party wants to make hay out of mistakes that have been made . . . when they are likely going to find themselves in the exact same position."
While opposition MLAs contend civic officials sometimes feel pressured to give money to the governing Tories, Alberta Urban Municipalities Association president Linda Sloan said in a meeting with the Herald editorial board she couldn't comment on whether that occurs.
However, Mayor Naheed Nenshi said he has never felt any pressure on himself or Calgary councillors to support the PCs.
"But it's Calgary. . . . We have 28 seats in this city," he said. "It's important for the provincial government to keep a good relationship with us as well."
Calgary Herald, Tues Mar 6 2012
Byline: James Wood, with files from Kelly Cryderman