Chief electoral officer promises to hire new election commissioner

Alberta's chief electoral officer said for the first time Friday he will hire a replacement for fired former election commissioner Lorne Gibson. 

But Glen Resler effectively told a legislative committee there is no guarantee Gibson will get his job back, or that he would even be considered qualified for it. 

"If he is a qualified candidate for that posting, absolutely he can apply for that position," Resler said in response to a question from opposition NDP ethics critic Heather Sweet.

Resler's appearance at the Legislative Offices committee was the first chance MLAs had to question him about how the vacuum created by Gibson's firing through legislation contained in Bill 22 would be filled — if at all.

The firing of Gibson had caused a political maelstrom because he was in the midst of an investigation related to the United Conservative Party leadership campaign, for which Gibson had already issued fines totalling more than $200,000. 

The NDP accused the government of Premier Jason Kenney of attempting a coverup. In response, the UCP government said Gibson's firing would save $200,000 a year by consolidating the offices and their administration, and bring Alberta in line with other provinces that have no separate election commissioner's office. Bill 22 didn't eliminate the position of election commissioner, instead leaving it to Resler's discretion whether to hire one. There was no timeline in the legislation for that to occur, meaning the position could remain vacant indefinitely. Resler told the committee that before there is an open competition for the election commissioner's job, a review would be conducted to determine if it would be a part-time or full-time position. 

"We have to look at what is the caseload, what is the workload, what activities are occurring, and where it is in the future," he said.

But in response to questions, Resler assured the committee investigations would continue as they had previously under Gibson. He said his office is non-partisan, it does not answer to a minister, and decisions about whether an investigation is undertaken are made by staff.

"That hasn't changed at all," Resler said.

Investigative records are secure, Resler says

Steve Kaye, investigations manager for the former election commissioner's office, told the committee the office had received 816 complaints and 76 were waiting to be assigned to investigators. 

Kaye and the rest of the staff from Gibson's office have transferred to Resler's office and Kaye said they plan to hire more contract investigators to handle the backlog.

Sweet asked Resler to clarify the rumour that the RCMP recently seized some records from Gibson's office. 

The RCMP are investigating allegations of identity fraud in the UCP leadership campaign. Gibson also referred to the RCMP potential violations that fell outside his office's jurisdiction related to the so-called "kamikaze" campaign of UCP leadership contender Jeff Callaway.

Internal documents obtained by CBC News revealed the Kenney and Callaway campaigns collaborated on a campaign to attack Kenney's main rival, former Wildrose leader Brian Jean. Despite what the documents show, Kenney and Callaway deny they collaborated.

Resler said he could not comment on any investigation activities. But he said the information formerly under Gibson's control will be secure as the two offices merge.

"We will have processes established to ensure the appropriate backup and security of the paper and the electronic transfers of documents, and that will ensure that there is no risk of loss," he said.

"Steps have already been taken to preserve those records held by the commissioner and we will ensure that we uphold the public trust."

No money saved, NDP say

The opposition NDP had sought to establish that Gibson's budget had been cut and that this would affect investigations. But Resler told the committee that with the two offices' budgets combined, he is asking for $100,000 more. "If Bill 22 had not passed, the budget I presented is more," Resler told reporters after the committee meeting. "So we're asking for more funding than what the commissioner was looking at." He said money will be saved through leasing one office instead of two, and the consolidation of support services like finance and human resources. Sweet said Resler's budget request confirms the UCP's firing of Gibson was politically, not financially, motivated.

"There is no cost savings for Albertans," she said. "This is a purely partisan attack on an individual that was investigating the leadership race and it is shameful and Albertans have a right to be extremely concerned."

If you have information for this story, or information for another story, please contact us in confidence at cbcinvestigates@cbc.ca Follow us on Twitter at: @jennierussell_ @charlesrusnell