Blog | March 15, 2012

'Stupid move' comment may be fundraiser's undoing

By Graham Thomson, Edmonton JournalEDMONTON - It is not normally a compliment to be called stupid.But for Premier Alison Redford, it might be something of a badge of honour when the insult is flung by a partisan enemy. In this case, it's a partisan enemy within her own party who also happens to be a poster boy for the Conservatives' old-boys' club.On Tuesday, John Chomiak said Redford made a "stupid move" by suspending Gary Mar as Alberta's envoy based in Hong Kong.Chomiak is not just a fan of Mar; he was finance chairman for Mar's unsuccessful leadership campaign last year, the campaign that spent a whopping $2.7 million and ended up with a $260,000 debt.To help pay off that debt, Chomiak organized a $400-a-plate fundraiser for Mar at the Edmonton Petroleum Club on March 1. The fundraiser itself wasn't a problem. As a private citizen, Mar is free to raise money to pay off his campaign debt. A potential problem arose when invitations publicizing the event referred to Mar's status as Alberta's envoy to China, leaving open the possible inference that Mar was improperly using his government position to raise money for his own financial benefit.Within minutes of learning about the fundraising invitations, Redford recalled Mar, suspended him without pay and referred the matter to the province's ethics commissioner. She had, in effect, fired Mar pending the outcome of the investigation. That has some of Mar supporters accusing the premier of overreacting. Or, in the case of Chomiak, accusing her of incompetence."I think it was a stupid move by the premier," Chomiak told reporters. "She should have at least had a discussion with me."Chomiak supports Mar's contention that Mar did nothing wrong and was not involved in planning the fundraiser. "Gary came back to Alberta pretty innocent, as far as I'm concerned, about this dinner. And he gets slammed like this. It's just totally unfair."Indeed, if Mar is shown to be innocent of any wrongdoing, the "Gary Mar affair" might be better labelled the "John Chomiak affair."It is not the first time the longtime Tory fundraiser has been associated with a leadership campaign that got into hot water trying to pay off a campaign debt. Chomiak was a key financial player in Ed Stelmach's successful leadership bid in December 2006 that also landed in red ink.To "balance the books," Chomiak helped organize a series of $500-a-plate dinners across the province in January 2007 billed as an "Evening with Ed Stelmach." The dinners themselves didn't create a controversy; it was a reference in the invitations that if attend-ees paid $5,000 "arrangements will be made to provide two additional tickets to a private reception from 4: 00 to 5: 00 pm, just prior to the main event."In other words, those with deep pockets got deep access to the premier.Opposition critics immediately accused the Conservatives of selling access to the premier. When the story made front-page news, Stelmach announced he was killing the $5,000-a-head private sessions, saying they were the product of "over-enthusiasm" by fundraisers. He still went ahead with the $500-a-plate dinners.For Stelmach and his fundraisers to think that it was good and proper to sell access to the premier for $5,000-a-head was a reminder that this was a government that had grown too comfortable with the trappings of power. When Ralph Klein was premier, for example, he used government aircraft as a personal limousine service and was known to accept trips aboard a Syncrude jet to go fishing with oil company executives.The sense of entitlement was so deeply ingrained that even politicians such as Stelmach who saw themselves as ethical and honest didn't flinch when told they were being sold for $5,000-a-handshake behind closed doors at special fundraisers.This helps explain why Redford reacted the way she did last Friday.She has been trying to present herself as a different kind of premier, one who might be a Tory but who is not a member of the Tories' old-boys' club. It is perhaps one reason why she won the leadership last October. But that image took a bit of a beating when, just days after becoming premier, she awarded Mar the Hong Kong posting without having a competition for the $265,000-a-year job. She might be a woman, but she looked like member of the old-boys' club herself.Then came last Friday when she learned there were ethical questions about Mar's fundraising event connected to his government job. She was caught in a dilemma. If she didn't act, she'd be accused of turning a blind eye to possible wrongdoing by a fellow Tory.So, she acted, suspending Mar without pay and calling in the ethics commission.With no proof of wrongdoing, she may have overreacted. Indeed, it turns out the ethics commissioner, Neil Wilkinson, says he doesn't have the legal authority to investigate Mar under the Conflicts of Interest Act, that the matter should be dealt with under the Public Service Act by the province's top civil servant, Peter Watson.Government officials say Watson will now bring in an independent investigator to determine if Mar did anything wrong.Mar is maintaining his innocence and has not said an unkind word about the premier - unlike Chomiak, whose "stupid move" comment sounds unprofessional at the very least.And coming as it does from a member of the party's old guard who's been down a bumpy fundraising road before, it arguably makes Redford's actions look better by comparison.By Graham Thomson, Edmonton Journalgthomson@edmontonjournal.comThis article was published in the Edmonton Journal on March 15, 2012. Read the full article on the Edmonton Journal website.