Alberta's United Conservative Party government denied the chief electoral officer's request for a four-month extension in a complex investigation into alleged election wrongdoing, the officer said.
Glen Resler told an all-party legislative committee Friday the COVID-19 pandemic and other complications were interfering with his office's ability to finish some investigations within the required three-year time limit.
Worried about one case in particular, which Resler did not identify, he sought a 120-day extension from the government, and was denied.
The Opposition NDP said the timelines and details of the case line up with the investigation into the 2017 UCP leadership race.
NDP democracy and ethics critic Heather Sweet said the government should acknowledge if it interfered with the investigation into its own party.
"I think the government should get out of the way and they should allow the elections officer to do the investigation," Sweet said in an interview.
Staff for the justice minister did not respond to emails and calls Friday afternoon.
Steve Kaye, Elections Alberta's director of compliance and investigations, told the legislative committee the pandemic was one of several factors hampering the investigation. He said the complaint came 15 months after the alleged misdeed, and people didn't co-operate.
"We then encountered challenging subjects and complainants that we personally served notices to attend and notices to appear before the commissioner," Kaye said. "We had to apply to the courts at one point to seek a court order compelling someone to appear before the [former election] commissioner."
When the request for an extension was denied, the office shuffled around duties so more people could focus on completing the work in time, he said.
The NDP believes the case in question is the alleged "kamikaze" campaign inside the UCP's 2017 leadership race. Now-Premier Jason Kenney and former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean were considered front runners to take the help of the newly united party.
Allegations from insiders and leaked records suggest money improperly flowed to leadership candidate Jeff Callaway, who would attack Brian Jean before abandoning the race.
Alberta's former election commissioner had levied more than $200,000 in fines in relation to the leadership race for improper campaign donations, collusion and obstructing investigations. Several parties have appealed those fines to the courts.
Leaked documents also suggest the Kenney and Callaway campaigns shared information and strategies.
Last year, the UCP government fired the election commissioner and merged his office with the chief electoral officer, arguing it would save money on administration.
Approval of auditor's budget delayed
Also at Friday's meeting, the government member-dominated committee voted to stall approval of the budget of the province's auditor general.
Auditor Doug Wylie had requested $26.3 million for the 2021-22 year, which is $2.5 million less than his budget this year.
UCP MLA Brad Rutherford made the request to delay approval, saying he had more questions for the auditor. Rutherford could not be reached Friday afternoon.
"This did come as a surprise," auditor spokesperson Val Mellesmoen said Friday afternoon. "It is unusual."
Sweet said the government is playing politics with the auditor, who last month identified $1.7 billion in accounting errors in the government's 2019-20 financial statements.
The committee approved the budgets of six other independent officers of the legislature, including the chief electoral officer.
Resler asked for, and received, a 28 per cent budget increase for next year. About 12 per cent of his 2021-22 budget will be spent preparing for and running provincial senate elections and referendums promised by the UCP government.
His office needs about $1.4 million to create and distribute election supplies, such as ballots and signs, advertise the elections, educate municipalities on running the votes in conjunction with civic elections and to operate a call centre, Resler said.
Fulfilling a campaign promise, the government passed legislation in 2019 allowing Albertans to elect the people they'd like to serve as senators in Ottawa. A national selection committee is not obligated to choose candidates Alberta elects.
Kenney has also proposed several referendums be held in 2021, including a vote on whether Albertans wish to continue participating in the federal equalization program. Creating a provincial pension plan and abandoning twice-yearly clock changes could also be on the ballot.
Resler said the budget does not include money for other democratic measures the government is considering, including promised recall legislation, or democratic initiatives such as citizen-led referendums.