Premier cancels $5,000 private parties, Stelmach takes blame for controversy – Premier Ed Stelmach insisted, “This will not happen again.”

Jessica Ernst
Box 753 Rosebud AB T0J 2T0

Dear Editor,

I saw Mr. Stelmach’s true colours when I read Jason Fekete’s articles on the Premier’s $5,000 private-access-to-him parties.  Who can afford $5,000 for a few minutes with the Premier?  For that amount a really good hooker will stay with you over night!


Jessica Ernst
Rosebud, AB

Ernst’s letter was published in the Strathmore Standard, Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal.

Premier offering private visit for $5,000, Plan to erase campaign debt draws outrage by Jason Fekete, January 11, 2007, Calgary Herald

Premier Ed Stelmach and two of his top ministers came under fire Wednesday, after revelations Albertans can buy “exclusive” access to them for $5,000, at fundraising soirees to be held next week in Calgary and Edmonton.

Alberta ethics commissioner Donald Hamilton said he’s “not so sure it’s a good thing to do,” but conceded there’s little that can be done under current legislation.

In an effort to retire Tory leadership campaign debts, organizers for Stelmach, Health Minister Dave Hancock, Finance Minister Lyle Oberg and former MLA Mark Norris — who all sought the party’s reins — are holding a $500-a-ticket reception in Calgary on Jan. 18.

However, there’s an opportunity to attend “a smaller, more exclusive event” with Stelmach and ministers prior to the reception “for a minimum donation of $5,000,” notes the e-mail invitation to the shindig, to be held at Ranahans at Stampede Park, a luxurious private dining room mostly used for corporate entertaining.

A similar fundraising reception is scheduled the following night in Edmonton.

“Both events will offer you and your colleagues an excellent opportunity to spend time with the new premier and some of his colleagues to discuss the issues the new government will face in the run-up to the next election and to make them aware of some of your key issues,” reads the invitation, which was sent to the business community.

Cheques are payable to “True Blue,” which appears to be an entity formed to fundraise for the four politicians, who teamed up on the second ballot of the Progressive Conservative leadership election to topple favourites Jim Dinning and Ted Morton. No tax receipts will be issued on the tickets.

Word of the events comes on the heels of a Tory leadership race that saw would-be premiers — most notably Stelmach — vowing to clean up government by eliminating backroom influence.

Calls to the premier’s office on Wednesday were directed to Joan Forge, the communications head of Stelmach’s leadership bid, who conceded it could be viewed as buying exclusivity with the premier.

However, she insisted this type of fundraising isn’t unusual and doesn’t suggest the new premier would be unduly swayed by those paying for access.

“I don’t see it as buying influence,” Forge said. “He (Stelmach) is the kind of fellow that meets with all Albertans. This is just something that (the) campaigns put together.” [!!!!!]

With no provincial legislation governing leadership races, candidates aren’t required to disclose their campaign contributors and donations, nor are there spending limits.

Stelmach, along with most of the leadership hopefuls, have vowed to disclose their donors in the coming weeks, but contributors have the option of remaining anonymous if they wish.

Forge said she’s uncertain about the extent of Stelmach’s campaign debts, but expects the premier will unveil his donors — or at least those willing to go public — within two months.

Hamilton, Alberta’s ethics commissioner, told the Herald his office is “looking at some things” that could change financial rules, but said current legislation doesn’t help him. He also noted that neither the premier nor any of the ministers talked to him on the issue.

Despite Stelmach’s promises of cleaner and transparent government, little appears to have changed in Alberta, charged a leading ethics watchdog, who said the fundraising scheme is a clear conflict of interest.

“It’s still the best government money can buy,” Duff Conacher, head of Ottawa-based Democracy Watch, said Wednesday. “Access-for-cash schemes are completely unethical. . . . They (politicians) shouldn’t be there.”

Similar fundraisers have been commonplace on the federal scene in recent years, Conacher said. But federal legislation now limits campaign donations to $1,000, which is aimed at curbing influence on government officials.

Liberal Leader Kevin Taft said he’s disappointed with Stelmach and his ministers.

“I expected more from Ed Stelmach. . . . It reflects poorly on all of them,” Taft said. “To be able to pay $5,000 to meet with the premier — that’s wrong.”

Oberg denied any access-for-cash perceptions, insisting they’re just looking to eliminate campaign cost overruns, which he said totalled about $25,000 for his team due to prepaid membership books that haven’t been returned.

“I don’t see it as buying access,” Oberg told the Herald. “Anyone who wants to can come and see me at any point in time.”

Requests for interviews with Hancock and Norris weren’t returned.

Stelmach’s debt dinners aren’t easy to swallow by Tom Olsen, January 11, 2007, Calgary Herald

The honeymoon ends — now! Poor Premier Ed, he barely got a chance to enjoy it.

Oh well, it can’t be helped. In the words of Chuck D on Public Enemy’s Apocalypse 91, “looks like somebody slipped up here.”

They sure did.

Seems Premier Ed Stelmach, Mark Norris, Lyle Oberg and Dave Hancock cooked up a way to retire the debts left over from the leadership run. The boys have put together a series of fundraising dinners at $500 a pop.

In Calgary, anyone interested in sharing the same room as the new premier can dash off a cheque and show up next Thursday at Ranahan’s at Stampede Park. It’s a two-hour cocktail gathering where party faithful — or whoever wants to peel five C notes off their roll — can co-mingle with the new political elite.

Good call to start off in Calgary. Stelmach’s still out to prove he won’t ignore the city, and this gives him a chance to hob-knob with some of the local players.

Events will follow in Edmonton, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Grande Prairie and Lloydminster.

So the mixers with the preem aren’t a bad thing. Parties regularly raise money through leaders dinners, and constituency associations boost their coffers by bringing in guest speakers (often cabinet ministers) and charging supporters a few bucks to attend.

Near the end of his term, Ralph Klein dinged supporters up to $450 a plate for his annual premier’s dinner fundraisers. He held at least four each year — one each in Calgary, Edmonton, then further north and further south.

Folks turned out en masse, even if Ralph’s speeches got increasingly more boring. Didn’t matter, he was the leader and he drew a crowd. Many used it as an opportunity to be seen.

There was never any controversy, because it’s not like those in attendance could claim any special face-time with the premier.

They were just one of 1,000 or so others, a few of whom might get a quick greeting as Ralph entered or left the room.

So the $500-a-plate pay-our-debts affair isn’t as smelly as say, blue cheese.

It’s what’s offered to the high rollers that’s stinking up the place.

If you or the company you represent coughs up $5,000 (at minimum) then you and a guest have access to a cozy little affair featuring Premier Ed and unspecified members of his government.

The names aren’t listed in the e-mailed invite obtained by the Herald’s Jason Fekete, but you know Oberg and Hancock will be there. That’s the finance minister and the health minister respectively, who, along with the premier, are among the very top of the province’s political power structure.

If treasury board president Lloyd Snelgrove shows up, that will mean the province’s key fiscal decision makers, the minister of the most expensive department (health) and the leader himself will be available.

According to the e-mailed invite, those who buy-in will be able to “discuss the issues the new Government will face in the run-up to the next election and to make them aware of some of your key issues.”

How is that not political access going to the highest bidder? That doesn’t smell. That reeks.

To repeat the quote from Chuck D — somebody slipped up here. Perhaps this is the first sign of a rookie administration. [Or merely greed, sloth, corruption and bad taste escalating in Big Oil Controlled Alberta?]

Somebody clearly figured it was a good idea to try to settle up the deficits run by Stelmach, Oberg, Norris and Hancock in one fell swoop.

Hence the big-money private reception. Bad idea that just demands the kind of negative attention it’s getting right here. Was no one able to foresee the storm that would bring?

Organizers should have stuck with the $500-a-plate idea in several different cities. The new premier is going to draw crowds, from people who know him and people who want to.

Sticking to the $500 cocktail fundraisers would have been well attended and gone a long way to erasing the debts, without the whole ugly optics thing of selling the premier’s ear.

Instead, as Ed’s hunkered down at the farm in Andrew, misguided efforts to right his campaign balance sheet are about to blow up.

The premier wasn’t available Wednesday, by the way. Nor was his chief-of-staff.

Maybe too busy working on a new policy of openness and accountability. [Emphasis added]

Premier cancels $5,000 private parties, Stelmach takes blame for controversy – Premier Ed Stelmach insisted, “This will not happen again.” by Jason Fekete, with files from Tom Olsen and Tony Seskus, January 12, 2007, Calgary Herald
Premier Ed Stelmach pulled the plug Thursday on a controversial fundraising plan that would have permitted “exclusive” access to him and senior ministers for a minimum $5,000 donation, saying the optics are poor and don’t represent his leadership style. “It’s a perception I’m not happy with, and, of course, it goes against what I’ve done in the past in politics,” Stelmach, who’s long been dubbed Honest Ed, said at a news conference at the legislature. But while the access-for-cash manoeuvre has been scrapped, officials with Stelmach’s leadership team said the donations — many of them either $5,000, $10,000 or $15,000 — will still happily be accepted in return for free tickets to a reception with the premier and his ministers.

The political retreat came as Alberta ethics commissioner Don Hamilton confirmed Thursday he will investigate whether the fundraising framework breached provincial conflict-of-interest legislation. On Wednesday, he said he’s “not so sure” the plan is a good thing. Stelmach’s backpedalling follows a Herald story that revealed plans for $500-a-ticket private soirees next week in Calgary and Edmonton. The fundraisers were intended to retire the premier’s leadership campaign debts — which total about $300,000 — and those of Health Minister Dave Hancock, Finance Minister Lyle Oberg and former MLA Mark Norris. However, there also was an opportunity prior to the receptions to attend what an e-mail invitation called “a smaller, more exclusive event” with Stelmach and his ministers for a minimum donation of $5,000.

The premier said Thursday he will still proceed with the $500-per-ticket fundraising receptions planned over the next few weeks in Calgary, Edmonton and four other Alberta cities, but has cancelled the access-for-cash VIP gatherings. “This will not happen again,” Stelmach said. “This is the result of not only miscommunication, but maybe volunteers not being fully aware of the way I personally do business, and that’s why I’m bringing it to a close.” Stelmach admitted he learned of plans for the private receptions before he left for Christmas holidays, but paid little attention to the details.

Political analyst David Taras said Stelmach — who was elected on promises of honesty and transparency — is to be credited for quickly spiking the private meet-and-greets, but argued his clean image may now be tarnished. “It looks really bad. It goes straight to the heart of his image,” said Taras, professor at the University of Calgary. “There will be some damage . . . People were paying for access. That overturned everything he had said.

The fundraising foul-up highlights the lack of financial rules governing leadership races in Alberta. Candidates aren’t required to disclose their campaign donors, nor are there limits on spending or donations. Stelmach, along with most of the leadership hopefuls, have vowed to disclose their donors in the coming weeks, but contributors have the option of remaining anonymous. The ethics commissioner, meanwhile, told the Herald his office has received an official request from “somebody who is in the government” to look into the matter. “We’re going to do that and I can’t tell you any more because now we have to do an investigation,” Hamilton said. He wouldn’t say whether the request came from someone inside Stelmach’s government or one of the opposition parties.

The Alberta NDP demanded Thursday that Hamilton investigate the matter, insisting the fundraising scheme is unethical and violates provincial legislation. “There’s a real blind spot on the part of all of the Conservatives — leadership candidates and the party and the government — around the whole question of transparency and fundraising for political purposes,” said NDP Leader Brian Mason. John Chomiak, the fundraising chair for Stelmach’s leadership bid, said organizers had sold more than 20 tickets to the VIP pre-receptions, with donations mostly ranging between $5,000 and $15,000.

While the private gatherings have been cancelled, all the donors’ cash that would have purchased access to the pre-receptions will still be accepted and allocated to pay off the debt, [How dirty is that?] he said. … Anyone now willing to donate $5,000 or more will be given free tickets to the larger $500 shindigs. [Emphasis added]

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