The government has it backwards when it comes to the new public inquiry being launched into queue-jumping in the health-care system.
Sure, it's a troubling issue. But former Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett, who red-flagged the problem of go-to guys in the system MLAs could use to fast- track treatment for influential Albertans, said he put a stop to it before he was canned.
The new inquiry, which Premier Alison Redford insists fulfils a promise she made in her leadership campaign, will determine if queue-jumping "is occurring."
With the microscope trained on health care these days, it's a safe bet the inquiry, headed by retired N.W.T. court judge John Z. Vertes, won't unearth much hanky panky.
It's also safe to assume that, given human nature, queue-jumping took place in the past, but ostensibly we'll never know for sure, because that won't fall within the scope of this probe.
"We have an independent judicial inquiry starting their work today on the issue that matters to Albertans," Premier Alison Redford said Monday.
An odd conclusion, given that most Albertans are far more alarmed that the queues exist in the first place.
Redford and Health Minister Fred Horne blow off demands for a broader inquiry by suggesting a "task force" will take care of such issues as physician intimidation and the impact of the massive 2008 restructuring.
Better yet, as a government heading into an election in April, they hope it will put a lid on this mess until well after Albertans cast their votes.
Not much chance of that.
There were too many questions raised in the troubling report by the Health Quality Council of Alberta on physician intimidation, inability to cut wait times and the impact of the major shakeup initiated by Health Minister Ron Liepert after the last election.
Add to this the brutal criticism contained in a full-page ad by the Alberta Medical Association Tuesday that asks: "Just how sick is Alberta's health-care system?"
It addresses patients who've had problems with access to family doctors and specialists, long waiting times in emergency rooms and the lack of long-term care services.
"Unfortunately, the news about the health-care system over the past few days won't give you much hope for improvement in the future," reads the startling "message from the doctors of Alberta."
It's clear physicians, who revealed brutal accounts of bullying and intimidation during the Health Quality Council probe, won't let themselves get kicked around any longer.
It's been a bad week for the Tories, with the revelation a government MLA advised a Catholic school board to shut up if it wanted funding to replace a school that was shamefully rundown.
The episode makes it painfully clear the lengths to which this government will go to silence criticism.
It also raises the question of the price we've paid as a result of this enforced silence.
Redford says "we have to move ahead" on fixing health care, rather than dwelling on "reliving the past to the point where we cannot improve the health care system."
She's probably right, but before we can do that, we have to figure out why our health-care system has gone so horribly off-course, despite the riches poured into it.
The Tory government, which has ruled with an iron fist to stifle dissent, has bungled health care to the point where the province's doctors are now in open revolt.
Somebody needs to be held to account for this mess.
If Redford won't do that, it will be up to Alberta voters.
It's beginning to look like a fix for health care won't come while the Tories are running the show.
Calgary Sun, Wed Mar 7 2012
Byline: Roy Clancy
Horne says province trying to mend relationships with MDs
CALGARY — Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne said he's not aware of political intimidation in the province's medical system — and said the Tory government is trying to mend its relationship with physicians.
Under fire from opposition critics at a health-care town hall Tuesday, Horne acknowledged Alberta's medical system is in a "tumultuous" time, but said there's no crisis and the government is taking steps to improve public health care.
"I do not believe our health-care system as a whole is in crisis in Alberta," Horne said. "There are some relationships in our health-care system that need attention."
About 200 community members, physicians and other health-care professionals attended the forum Tuesday.
With an election call potentially just weeks away — and Alberta's doctors promising to ramp up public advocacy — Horne and representatives from four opposition parties fielded questions on politically charged health-care problems.
Horne fended off accusations from opposition parties that the Redford government has lost the trust of health workers and Albertans over its handling of medical issues in the wake of a scathing Health Quality Council of Alberta report.
Alberta Liberal health critic Dr. David Swann said a "chronic uncertainty" in the system must be resolved.
"The professionals in the system have not seen the kind of changes that would actually build trust, build a sense of solidarity, and a plan going forward they can buy into," he said.
Heather Forsyth of the Wildrose contended the health-care system is "broken," and the government must do a better job managing resources.
The panel, hosted by the Alberta Medical Association, the Canadian Medical Association and the Calgary Herald, also included Alberta Party Leader Glenn Taylor and Alberta NDP candidate Shannon Phillips.
It comes as the government has promised to enact 21 recommendations to improve care following the health quality council report last month that found lengthy emergency-room waits and widespread problems of physicians being bullied.
A judicial inquiry on health care will only examine allegations of queue-jumping in the Alberta medical system.
The health quality council report found stories of physicians who were being intimidated, but didn't identify specific cases.
"If we really want accountability in this system, we need that full judicial inquiry and we need it now, not after the election," Phillips said.
"Why don't we do what Albertans want, instead of what the government wants, in regards to the inquiry?" said Forsyth.
Horne said Tuesday the government has already begun work to build a "just and trusting" culture in health care and an inquiry isn't needed into physician intimidation. Asked whether there are cases of political interference from cabinet or caucus in the instances of intimidation documented in the report, Horne said: "Not to my knowledge."
The forum covered a broad range of issues, including plans for the Redford government's new family care clinics, alternate models of payment for physicians and an increased role for Alberta's pharmacists.
The province's plan for continuing care spaces also came under the microscope. The government has committed to reducing acute care bed occupancy to 95 per cent by Oct. 31, and that means, in part, ensuring more seniors are moved from hospital beds into nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
The health minister said there are 14,600 long-term care beds in Alberta, and as of January, about 325 Albertans waiting in acute care beds for the spaces.
"We're interested in placing people in facility-based care who need it. We are equally interested in facilitating a return to home with appropriate support for people who don't need to be in a facility."
Forsyth noted that in 2010, the government said Alberta had 14,800 long-term care beds and questioned why the number has gone down while the need increases.
Grilled about the new family care clinics, promised by Premier Alison Redford during her Tory leadership bid, Horne said work is underway to open three pilot projects by the end of this month. The centres are supposed to support better primary care in Alberta by having a team of health professionals in one facility with extended hours.
Critics questioned how the centres will be different from existing primary care networks. Horne said the family care clinics will be designed to offer small communities services to meet their unique needs.
Tuesday's forum came as the AMA appealed for an end to political interference in physician advocacy, and promised a "higher level of public advocacy."
The group took out full-page ads in the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal, asking, "Just how sick is Alberta's health-care system."
The ads, which were published as doctors have been without a long-term agreement since March 2011, state that advocacy "requires physicians being involved in decisions that really matter surrounding the care of you and your family. It also requires an end to political interference and the creation of a respectful relationship between Alberta's doctors and the government."
Last month the Tory government imposed a one-year salary arrangement on Alberta doctors, including a two per cent increase in fees and a boost to the amount given to primary care networks to $62, up from $50 per enrolled patient.
Negotiations on a long-term deal with doctors are continuing.
Calgary Herald, Wed Mar 7 2012
Byline: Jamie Komarnicki
Linda Sloan would make one great poker player.
The president of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association was handed a royal flush late last week, and when given the opportunity to lay down her cards and crow a bit during a Herald editorial board meeting Monday, she betrayed not the least bit of emotion — her lips did not crack into even the slightest grin, and even her eyes did not smile. However did she do it?
To say that the Edmonton councillor and former Alberta Liberal MLA was justified, would be an understatement. The entire, smug Tory government was hoisted on its own petard after Hector Goudreau's now infamous letter that borders on blackmail was made public last Thursday.
The leaked letter was written by Goudreau in response to complaints by Betty Turpin, superintendent of the Holy Family Catholic Regional School Division, with regard to a dilapidated school in Grimshaw that is so cold, students must wear their outdoor gear in the gym and they have troubles holding onto pens in the library because of frozen fingers. Ceilings have collapsed and toilets regularly overflow, turning the principal of Holy Family School, Cora Ostermeier, into a part-time custodian and plumber.
"In order for your community to have the opportunity to receive a new school, you and your school board will have to be very diplomatic from now on out," wrote Goudreau to Turpin in the letter dated Feb. 9.
"I advise you to be cautious as to how you approach future communications as your comments could be upsetting to some individuals."
In case Goudreau didn't make the bullying tactics of his government clear enough, he wrote: "This could delay the decision on a new school."
Goudreau, it's vital to point out, was the Municipal Affairs minister under Ed Stelmach's Tory government. While no longer in cabinet, he was the chair of the cabinet committee on community development, a post he resigned Monday as a result of this letter becoming public.
The Tory government is now trying to claim that the message behind Goudreau's letter is an isolated one. If you believe that, I have a nice, old (cool) school to sell you in Grimshaw.
In short, the release of that bullying letter spells V-I-N-D-I-C-A-T-I-O-N for Sloan, who was accused of lying "maliciously" by Premier Alison Redford's chief of staff, Stephen Carter, in a tweet on Feb. 14.
Carter's tweet, which he has not deleted, but has apologized for, was in response to Sloan alleging that provincial funding was more generous in Tory ridings than in Liberal, NDP or Wildrose ones.
Her allegation that provincial funding to municipalities was doled out on a partisan basis was first made in a Herald column published last December, when she wrote that government grants to municipalities have been: "unpredictable, subject to reductions and political partisanship in their distribution."
That allegation was so vehemently objected to by Alberta's current Municipal Affairs minister, Doug Griffiths, following the provincial budget that the entire Tory caucus voted to not attend the AUMA's breakfast meeting with municipal leaders on Feb. 16.
Griffiths initially insisted that Sloan would have to apologize and retract her statement if Conservative MLAs were going to attend the breakfast. In the end, Griffiths and the other Tories did attend the meeting, but the province's message was clear: If you criticize us, you will be chastened publicly, we will call you names and we will bully you into not criticizing us publicly again.
Sound familiar? Isn't that exactly what Alberta doctors say is going on, only they're threatened with their very jobs when they advocate for their patients. The independent Health Quality Council of Alberta came to that conclusion in its recent report and Premier Redford vowed to hold a judicial inquiry into doctor intimidation, among other issues plaguing Alberta's health system. Something clearly spooked her because Redford has since reneged on that promise.
Numerous town councillors from small municipalities, along with school board officials, have made a habit of making illegal contributions to PC fundraisers with public money presumably to help grease the gears of government in their municipalities' favour.
Now, thanks to Goudreau, we not only have the smoking gun into political intimidation, we have the still-warm corpse with a bullet lodged between its eyes.
In Monday's editorial board meeting, Sloan was flogging the AUMA's new public campaign to seek a funding formula for all of the 277 Alberta municipalities that she speaks for. She made it clear, time and again, that she wants to leave the story about partisan funding behind.
"Our focus and our message is about municipalities. It isn't about the story or the headline associated with the intimidation, whether it is there or not there," said Sloan, who added that the AUMA's relationship is stronger today than it was on Valentine's Day, when Carter's libellous tweet was sent out.
So, is she being intimidated into saying this. She insists that she is not.
She is clearly holding a strong hand close to her chest. Whether it's another royal flush or just a pair of aces remains to be seen. Expect an announcement about the province working to develop a new funding framework for municipalities sometime soon.
Calgary Herald (editorial), Tues Mar 6 2012
Byline: Licia Corbella
Don't let the Alberta government tag fool you.
What we've got here is a pure political piece of work, an ad where the provincial Tories want to get you to vote for them and they use your dough to try and do it.
The government is spending quite the chunk of change on ads these days — $425,000 to be exact — on radio, online and in print.
These are just for the ads referring to the province's recent budget, running until the middle of March and ... What Timing Batman! ... that's a spot on the calendar which could be a mere 11 days from the day the battle for ballots begins in Alberta.
The ad in front of us says what everybody knows. It isn't explaining a government program. It isn't informing you of some matter of urgent importance.
No, it is a propaganda pitch on your dime or 4.25 million dimes, starring a young mountain bike-loving guy who must not sound in any way British, a 30-something wholesome and approachable mom who has a taste for candy apple red cake mixers and a 50-something couple who are gritty, apparently, says the script, like folks who own farms.
In this ad, life is good, real good, like the best of all possible Christmases.
The mountain-bike loving guy gets his mountain bike, full suspension and all.
The mom will have that candy apple red cake mixer she craves and the gritty couple will likely go on a vacation, presumably far away from the farm they supposedly sound like they own.
And who is responsible for all this sweetness and light coming upon these three who are, of course, mere stand-ins for all of us fortunate souls. The Redford Tories, no else.
Why is that?
Because the Redford Tories have not taken any more money from us in taxes this spring than they already scoop.
Such kindness! How merciful! Stupendously good show. Put your X in the proper box.
Other provinces have rules about this sort of thing, you know, the government running ads blowing its own horn with taxpayer cash just before an election.
Then again, in other provinces, in 40 years, people change governments and, don't get scared now, sometimes more than once.
In Manitoba, the provincial government has to stop self-congratulation funded from the public purse three months before election day. There's an exception for ads on important matters of public health and safety.
Here, we get ads on important matters of Tory health and safety.
There is nothing in Alberta law governing provincial government ads around election time. Squat.
The Tory government does have its own policy. They won't run ads paid for by taxpayers and patting themselves on the back during the actual election campaign. Mighty sporting of them.
Does that sound too British?
As to the question whether there's a connection between this ad about no new taxes and coverage by this newspaper about tax talk being on the table once the election is over if the Tories win, to say nothing of the Wildrose pledge not to raise taxes.
Absolutely zero connection, says the premier's office. By the way, the premier has recently almost tripled her staff of spin doctors.
Scott Hennig of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation says there's a reason other places have a law against what the Alberta government is doing.
Hennig adds this particular ad is "bad in general" and "horribly insulting."
"Somehow we should down on our knees thanking the government for not taking more taxes," he says, sounding like he's about ready to gag.
Wildroser Guy Boutilier, a fearless legislature scrapper from Fort Mac, throws down the gloves and accuses the Tories of "running scared" because Albertans are talking about whether taxes will go up after the election, a possible hike in next spring's budget.
Boutilier pushes Deputy Premier Doug Horner to get the Tories to foot the bill for their electioneering.
Horner says the ads are not about shameless self-promotion at all.
The ads are "so we can communicate and have a two-way dialogue with Albertans. That's what they asked us to do."
What Albertans asked?
Does Horner really believe Albertans are banging on the door to get the Tories to use taxpayer dollars to scrounge for votes just before the election campaign begins?
Guess that's life in the bubble.
Calgary Sun, Tues Mar 6, 2012
Byline: Rick Bell
Low-level bullying is bad, but high-level bulling is fine. There's the latest news flash from an inconsistent government.
For writing a stupid letter to a local school board, PC MLA Hector Goudreau was thrown under the wheels of Premier Alison Redford's campaign bus Monday.
It was painful to see, because Goudreau is a well-meaning fellow whose advice (shut up or you won't get your school) was actually quite practical. That's just the way it goes in Alberta.
A smack was in order, though. A democratic government that orders its citizens to be quiet, on pain of punishment, has truly lost its way.
So Redford accepted Goudreau's resignation as chair of a choice cabinet committee. She even scolded him in the legislature. Albertans must feel free to speak out, she said vigorously.
But the premier's words seem hollow when we recall that a senior minister got away with far worse only three weeks ago.
Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffith wrote a pouty letter that could only be seen as a threat to more than 200 communities that belong to the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association.
Attacking Linda Sloan, the president of AUMA, Griffiths said the entire cabinet and caucus would boycott an association meeting the next day.
He wrote, "You have chosen to make false accusations in the newspaper while claiming you want to work together. This situation can be remedied if you publicly apologize and retract your erroneous statement."
Elsewhere he said: "Your comments are deliberately inflammatory and erroneous."
Sloan's sin was to allege that the government sometimes distributes money for partisan reasons - a widespread impression among the munis.
In an article for the Herald last Dec. 20, Sloan wrote: "Historically, these grants have been unpredictable, subject to reductions and political partisanship in their distribution."
Sloan wasn't saying any of that on her own. As president, she's mouthpiece for the AUMA board and sticks precisely to its majority decisions and views.
But Griffiths went politically postal, insisting that no money is ever distributed for partisan reasons.
And then, he was quickly faced with evidence that it is.
Bonnyville Mayor Ernie Isley, a former PC minister, said his town has been shafted ever since he joined Wildrose. Goudreau's letter showed that money can be denied if the wrong people are offended.
And that, one suspects, is what got Goudreau in so much trouble. He was proving pretty much what a minister was denying.
After the board superintendent of a rundown Catholic school in Grimshaw complained about government inaction, Goudreau wrote:
"I advise you to be cautious as to how you approach future communications as your comments could be upsetting to some individuals. This could delay the decision on a new school."
On one level the Griffiths and Goudreau messages are quite similar; if you make us mad, there's a penalty to pay.
After the AUMA fiasco, the minister relented and went to the meeting, saying it was all good because Sloan assured him she was taken out of context.
She has never repeated that publicly; in any case, it's quite hard to be taken out of context in an article you write yourself.
And what did Redford do about all this? She dumped Hector Goudreau and praised Doug Griffiths. The byproducts of power can be strange indeed.
Calgary Herald (editorial), Tues Mar 6 2012
Byline: Don Braid
Opponents of Alberta's Progressive Conservatives must go to sleep at night thanking the political gods for making life so easy for them. The PCs keep handing an endless supply of ammunition to the New Democrats, the Liberals, the Wildrose, the fledgling Alberta Party and any others that want to sign up for the fight. Through their own missteps, the Tories have allowed the opposition to frame the upcoming spring election around one dominant issue — that the PCs are political bullies.
First came allegations of doctor intimidation, then improper donations by public officials who felt obliged to support the party, then the accusation that municipalities that vote Tory get preferential funding, and now a damning "smoking gun" letter by PC MLA and former cabinet minister Hector Goudreau warning a school district not to be critical of the government or it might not get a new school.
As the Wildrose said in a news release Monday, it all adds up to a "culture of corruption, cronyism, intimidation, bullying, self-dealing and patronage." After 40 years of rule, the Tories may not be drunk with power, but they certainly seem to be borderline impaired.
For many, the letter by Goudreau was perhaps the last straw. It's bad enough for doctors to be muzzled for advocating for patients, but to threaten a school board advocating for a safe and healthy environment for children who are shivering in a cold school with collapsing ceilings and creaky plumbing is beyond offensive.
On Monday, Goudreau, the Peace River-area MLA for Dunvegan-Central Peace, informed the Tory caucus that he would step down as head of a cabinet policy committee on community development. Late last week, it was revealed that he had written a letter to the Holy Family Catholic School Division that suggested criticism of the government could hamper the district's chances of funding for a new school in Grimshaw.
"In order for your community to have the opportunity to receive a new school, you and your school board will have to be very diplomatic from here on out," Goudreau told district superintendent Betty Turpin. "I advise you to be cautious as to how you approach future communications as your comments could be upsetting to some individuals. This could delay the decision on a new school."
The Tories have been criticized by former PC MLA and now Liberal party Leader Raj Sherman for looking after "their buddies." Linda Sloan, president of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, faced a vicious, two-pronged attack from Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths and Alison Redford's chief of staff, Stephen Carter, when she said towns and cities that vote Tory get preferential funding.
Redford, who promised change, may be the fresh face of the PC party, but the culture of Tory entitlement is looking so ingrained that it appears all the PCs' opponents need do is line up to shoot fish in a barrel.
Calgary Herald (editorial), Tues Mar 6 2012
Over-the-top letter bolsters criticisms Tories govern through intimidation, pork-barrel politics
When the leaked letter first crossed my desk, I thought somebody was pulling my leg.
I suspected a prankster - probably one of the opposition parties - was having fun at the expense of the Conservatives. The letter, apparently on official government letterhead from MLA Hector Goudreau, warned school officials in his home riding of Dunvegan-Central Peace to stop complaining about the government or risk losing a proposed new school.
"In order for your community to have the opportunity to receive a new school, you and your school board will have to be very diplomatic from now on out," said the letter addressed to Betty Turpin, superintendent of the Holy Family Catholic Regional Division. "I advise you to be cautious as to how you approach future communications as your comments could be upsetting to some individuals." And the kicker: "This could delay the decision on a new school."
Given the opposition complaints of government bullying, the over-the-top letter smelled like a parody of government bullying.
It is no parody.
The letter is real. Goudreau sent it on Feb. 9 after a front-page story in The Journal described how Cora Ostermeier, principal at Holy Family School in Grimshaw, has had to become the building's unofficial caretaker. "Last Friday, there was no heat in our gym," said Ostermeier. "It's ice cold, we have presentations and we're getting kids to bring their jackets down. Then I'm calling maintenance and trying to co-ordinate someone to come in and look at the furnaces to find out why they're not running, and it's below zero in my gym."
Superintendent Turpin pleaded for help: "It's frustrating and it's concerning and it would be totally unacceptable somewhere else. We can't understand why we're being ignored. We don't know what we have not done for somebody to wake up and see this."
The complaints certainly woke up Goudreau who responded with his terse note to the school board. Given the letter's menacing tone it's a wonder Goudreau didn't deliver it courtesy of a rock tossed through a school board window.
Keep in mind this is not Goudreau making an ill-advised but spur-of-the-moment phone call to the school board. It is not him making a regrettable Tweet.
This is a government MLA - chair of the cabinet policy committee on community development - putting his irritation in a care-fully composed and threatening letter. Just four paragraphs long, the letter is hardly an opus but it does have an eloquence all its own, inadvertently speaking to the long-standing complaints from the opposition that, after four decades in power, the Alberta Conservatives govern through intimidation and pork-barrel politics.
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith called Gou-dreau's letter "thug tactics," as apt a description as any.
No surprisingly, Turpin complained about the letter to the premier's office and on Feb. 15 Goudreau wrote an apologetic, of sorts, followup letter saying his original note was "inappropriate."
"I am also concerned that I left you with an inaccurate impression of how the Government of Alberta makes school capital decisions, and I regret that," said Goudreau. "All government decisions regarding school capital projects are merit-based."
Goudreau wrote his retraction the same day the government was scrambling to retract or at least downplay its ill-advised letter to Linda Sloan, president of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, in which Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths threatened to boycott a breakfast meeting with municipal leaders. The AUMA's "crime": openly criticizing the government's pre-budget consultation process and complaining about pork-barrel politics. Adding insult to the government's injury, Griffith's petulant letter was followed by the infamous tweet from Stephen Carter, the premier's chief of staff, accusing Sloan of lying "maliciously." Carter later apologized and Griffiths attended the breakfast - but not before the government was taken through the ringer by the opposition parties.
What the government seemed to have forgot-ten in the AUMA affair is that, as a majority government with 41 years experience, it is sup-posed to be the grown-up in the room. There is no excuse for the government to play petulant bully or, bizarrely enough in the AUMA case, petulant victim. And threatening to punish the AUMA only reinforced the charge that the government plays partisan politics.
And then there is Goudreau's response to a school board that has been pleading for a new school for 10 years to replace a crumbling relic where, according to Journal reporter Andrea Sands, the school principal "routinely inspects her school's mechanical room, checks faltering furnaces and electrical breakers, monitors plumbing and mops up overflowing toilets in the 50-year-old building."
The school board was only standing up for its (very cold) students, something Goudreau, as MLA, is supposed to do as well.
Goudreau couldn't be reached for comment Friday but Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said he "did not approve" of Gou-dreau's initial letter and added that if he had penned such a note, "I would be packing my desk and I imagine I wouldn't be an insider (in cabinet) tomorrow."
Goudreau is not a cabinet minister but, as chair of the cabinet committee on community development, he is an "insider" of sorts.
Premier Redford might want to reconsider his status. I hear there's an opening for a caretaker at the Holy Family School in Grimshaw.
Edmonton Journal, Tues Mar 6 2012
Byline: Graham Thomson
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
Catholic board warned comments could delay new school decision
A culture of "political extortion" practised by the Alberta government has been laid bare in a recent letter from northern Conservative MLA Hector Goudreau to a school board, opposition parties allege.
In the Feb. 9 letter obtained by The Journal, Goudreau warned the Holy Family Catholic School Division that criticism of the government could imperil the district's chances of funding for a new school.
"In order for your community to have the opportunity to receive a new school, you and your school board will have to be very diplomatic from here on out," the DunveganCentral Peace MLA tells district superintendent Betty Turpin.
"I advise you to be cautious as to how you approach future communications, as your comments could be upsetting to some individuals. This could delay the decision on a new school."
He does not say who "some individuals" might be.
The letter came in response to an email from Turpin the day before, in which she petitioned Goudreau to ask a question in the legislature about funding to replace the dilapidated Holy Family School in Grimshaw. The district has been campaigning for several years to replace or repair the facility, which is plagued with deficient heating, ventilation, plumbing and electrical systems. Students regularly have to wear jackets to use the gym or library.
The conditions at the school were brought to light in a Jan. 26 Edmonton Journal article, in which Turpin was quoted.
"It's frustrating and it's concerning, and it would be totally unacceptable somewhere else," she said in the article. "We can't understand why we're being ignored. We don't know what we have not done for somebody to wake up and see this."
School district officials also prepared a video detailing Holy Family's problems and sent it to provincial authorities, including Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk.
Though Goudreau backtracked from his comments in two more letters to the district on Feb. 14 and Feb. 15, opposition parties say the tone of his original letter is the most damning evidence to date of the Conservatives using bullying tactics to blunt criticism.
"This is how the PCs operate, it's just that usually they do it verbally rather than put it in writing," Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson said. "It's political extortion. It's corruption. You've got these PC politicians running around saying, 'If you don't keep your mouth shut, or if you don't support us, you are not going get your money.' "
Anderson said while the Tories will try to portray the letter as an isolated incident from one backbench MLA, people are beginning to recognize a pattern of behaviour from the government.
Opposition parties have been busy over the last few months detailing instances of municipalities, universities and other public institutions that bought tickets to PC party fundraisers. Though the practice is illegal, such institutions do it anyway out of fear that skipping such events could jeopardize their funding, the opposition says.
In addition, there was a recent spat with Alberta Urban Municipalities Association president Linda Sloan, who suggested partisanship plays a role in how grant money is handed out to municipalities. The claim provoked Premier Alison Redford's chief of staff, Stephen Carter, to post a remark on Twitter accusing Sloan of lying - he was later ordered to apologize - while Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths had vowed to boycott an association breakfast.
The Health Quality Council of Alberta also recently completed an extensive review that found there has been widespread intimidation and muzzling of physicians who advocate for their patients. The province has vowed to fix the problem, but also decided an upcoming public inquiry won't delve further into the issue.
Anderson said Redford's election as PC leader last year was supposed to bring a change of tone in the government, but it hasn't happened.
"Alison Redford's word has as much credibility as Kim Kardashian's wedding vows right now," he said. "I think most people are saying, 'We didn't agree with (former premier) Ed Stelmach on many things, but at least he was honest."
NDP Leader Brian Mason said Goudreau's letter was the most blatant example he has seen of a culture of intimidation used by the PCs.
"Mr. Goudreau has done everyone in public life a great service by showing very explicitly how this government maintains control."
Liberal Leader Raj Sherman called the letter an attack on freedom of speech, while Alberta Party Leader Glenn Taylor said it shows the government makes decisions "based on who talks the nicest."
Dianne Lavoie is board chairwoman of the Holy Family Catholic Regional Division. She said her organization was disappointed and surprised at Goudreau's message, but was relieved when the MLA softened his stance in two subsequent letters.
In the Feb. 14 letter from Goudreau, he said he "did not mean to imply that an investment in a new school was contingent on certain actions."
A Feb. 15 letter went further. While Goudreau said he was "displeased" with the district's comments on Holy Family School, he admitted his initial response was inappropriate.
"I am also concerned that I left you with an inaccurate impression of how the government of Alberta makes school capital decisions, and I regret that," he wrote. "All government decisions regarding school capital projects are merit-based."
Lukaszuk said he spoke with Goudreau shortly after learning about the original letter.
"He had some time to think about it and he retracted his comments and I'm glad he did because my comments to him were such that I simply would not support him or approve the content of his initial letter."
The education minister denied the allegations that Goudreau's approach was typical of how the government operates. He said his mandate from Redford is to always act in a collaborative spirit, despite inevitable disagreements.
"This is a behaviour I would have never condoned, nor would I have ever acted that way," he said. "If I was to have this type of relationship with a school board, I would be packing my desk and I imagine I wouldn't be a minister tomorrow.
"This was simply an unfortunate letter, perhaps not well thoughtout, and hopefully with no residual consequences."
Goudreau, 61, could not be reached for comment Friday. He served in three different portfolios in Stelmach's cabinet, but was not included in Redford's inner circle.
A spokesman for the premier said Goudreau is not expected to face any disciplinary action. He is running for re-election this spring.
Edmonton Journal, Sat Mar 3 2012
Byline: Keith Gerein
CALGARY — Tory MLA Hector Goudreau stepped in one huge cow pie when he told a northern school board last month that offending the wrong people could delay funding for a new school.
Which does not mean it wasn't the truth.
Local politicians have known for decades not to criticize the PC government, especially around election time. To speak is to risk the continued free flow of public money.
But Goudreau's Feb. 9 letter was certainly an inconvenient truth, especially when, only days later, Alberta's municipal affairs minister, Doug Griffiths, blasted as slanderous any suggestion that money is distributed for political reasons.
Linda Sloan, president of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, who made that point, was told she lied, maliciously, in an infamous public tweet by Stephen Carter, then the premier's chief of staff.
The government's Valentine's Day assault on Sloan wasn't just over the top; it was also a spectacularly stupid invitation to prove the PCs wrong.
It's a big province and if even a few cases were out there, the government was going to look both frightened and mean-spirited.
And Goudreau's letter was already out there.
When the Edmonton Journal revealed it Friday, opposition parties instantly jumped on the Tories.
Wildrose led the charge, alleging a culture of intimidation.
Writing to Betty Turpin of the Holy Family Catholic Regional Division, Goudreau said: "In order for your community to have the opportunity to receive a new school, you and your school board will have to be very diplomatic from here on out. . . . I advise you to be cautious as to how you approach future communications as your comments could be upsetting to some individuals. This could delay the decision on a new school."
What on earth had set off Goudreau, a former minister who's now chair of the cabinet policy committee on community development?
In late January, the Journal ran a story about the Holy Family School in Grimshaw, which sounds grim indeed.
For instance, the library is so cold that students have to wear winter clothes to study. The principal routinely takes carbon monoxide readings in the school.
In the story, Turpin described continuing efforts to deal with the school's many problems while the board waits for a new one.
"It's frustrating and it's concerning and it would be totally unacceptable somewhere else. We can't understand why we're being ignored. We don't know what we have not done for somebody to wake up and see this," she said at the time.
Then Goudreau sent his letter. It can be seen as politically threatening, for sure, but he was also giving good advice on how to get that school.
This is simply how things work in Alberta: be nice, don't embarrass the government, and you might get your reward.
A few days later, Griffiths went on his rampage at criticism — also in a newspaper story — about politics being connected to funding.
And gosh, the very day this uproar was at its peak, Goudreau wrote a second letter to Turpin.
After repeating his support for the school, Goudreau added: "I did not mean to imply that an investment in a new school was contingent on certain actions."
He hadn't implied anything, though — he said it straight out. Upsetting the PC government could delay funding.
The next day, remarkably, Goudreau sent yet another letter by e-mail.
Acknowledging that he'd been displeased by the board's comments about the Grimshaw school, he said: "My e-mail response of Feb. 9 2012, however, was inappropriate.
"I am also concerned that I left you with an inaccurate impression of how the Government of Alberta makes school capital decisions, and I regret that."
But the first impression sounded entirely accurate.
You'll hear about this one in the election campaign, again and again.
Calgary Herald, Sat Mar 3 2012
Byline: Don Braid