A Court of Queen's Bench judge has found UCP MLA Leela Aheer did not exceed political contribution limits in 2018 and was treated unfairly in the investigation by the Alberta elections commissioner.
In a decision released Wednesday, Justice J.T. Eamon of Calgary Court of Queen's Bench rescinded the 2019 finding and $2,000 penalty from then-elections commissioner Lorne Gibson.
The judge found the investigation was unfair to Aheer because she wasn't given a chance to provide evidence that would have cleared her of the alleged infractions.
"The election commissioner breached its obligations of procedural fairness owed to the applicant," the judge wrote. "The failure to consider the evidence was a palpable and overriding error. The decision must be set aside."
Aheer, currently a candidate in the United Conservative Party's leadership race, said she is relieved the matter has finally been resolved after three years.
"It took a really long time to get this ruling, but I'm very grateful," she said in an interview with CBC News. "We knew that we were clear of this and that we would be exonerated."
The matter goes back to May 2019 when Aheer was fined for exceeding the $4,000 political contribution limit by $1,000 in 2018.
However, the alleged over-contributions were not political donations under the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act. They were two $500 nomination fees required for her to be a candidate in her constituency.
Aheer wasn't able to share that information with Gibson because she wasn't aware she was under investigation. Aheer first heard of the matter through media reports.
Aheer filed an application for a judicial review.
When the matter went to court, Aheer was able to provide the cheques used to pay nomination fees to the judge.
'Serious breach' of fairness
According to the ruling, the commissioner sent Aheer a letter she says she never received. The letter was sent through regular post and there was no follow-up by the commissioner to ensure that Aheer had received it.
The judge said this was unfair to someone who could face thousands of dollars in penalties for violating the act.
"I find that the election commissioner did not take adequate steps to notify the applicant of these matters, did not provide reasonable notice of the substance of the allegations, and did not provide the applicant a reasonable opportunity to respond to the allegations," the judge wrote.
"This was a serious breach of procedural fairness."
Gibson hasn't been elections commissioner since November 2019 when his position and office were eliminated by the United Conservative government in a move that critics said was solely political. Gibson had levied thousands of dollars in fines in his investigation of the 2017 UCP leadershp race won by Premier Jason Kenney.
In an email to CBC News on Thursday, Gibson said he had no recollection of the Aheer investigation and no access to investigation records as he had to give them to Resler when he left office. Gibson added that legislation prohibits him from disclosing information he heard while he was election commissioner.
In an emailed statement, Elections Alberta said it accepts the judge's decision and has removed mention of Aheer's penalty from its website.
"Our office will not be commenting on any investigation that may have been conducted, or penalty that was levied, by the former election commissioner," the email said.
Aheer said the ruling allows her to put the matter behind her.
"I'm a rule follower. That's just the way that I am," she said.
"And if I had done something inadvertently, I would have been the first person to admit it and acknowledge it and pay the fine.
"Believe me, in terms of lawyer fees, it would have been way easier to just pay the fine and get it done and over with. But we knew we were correct on this."