WINNIPEG — Manitoba Finance Minister Greg Selinger admitted Wednesday that he demanded a letter from NDP headquarters absolving him and his campaign of any wrongdoing in an election-finance scheme that required the party to repay $76,000 in rebates.
The revelation came hours after a former NDP campaign worker revealed that party brass altered 13 campaign returns without the knowledge of official agents in order to cash in on more rebates.
Jim Treller, who was the official agent for former MLA Harry Schellenberg in the 1999 provincial election, said the NDP must call a public inquiry to clear up the mess. Echoing accusations by the Tories, Treller said full-time union workers -- like the woman who managed the phones in Schellenberg's campaign office -- were being counted as expenses instead of donations-in-kind on campaign-finance paperwork.
"We were charging for expenses we didn't have," said Treller at a press conference Wednesday. "And that's not appropriate."
It wasn't until a key meeting in 2003, more than three years after the election, that Treller and a group of other campaign workers learned their original returns had been altered and landed the party in a $76,000 pickle.
Selinger was among the candidates who attended the 2003 meeting at party headquarters. Treller said Selinger was "so upset he looked like he was about to have a stroke," and demanded the party write a letter exonerating him and his campaign of any wrongdoing.
Following question period Wednesday, Selinger faced the media and confirmed Treller's account.
Selinger said he knew the issue could be politically explosive, acknowledged that he and others were upset and said he asked for a letter from Tom Milne, the party secretary at the time, outlining who was responsible.
"I felt it was them who were responsible for the practice and them who were responsible for correcting it," said Selinger.
The Winnipeg Free Press has spoken to six other candidates or official agents, and their accounts of the 1999 election vary.
Most said they could not remember details from a decade ago and said they had no knowledge the central campaign had altered their returns. Several said they don't recall the 2003 meeting when all was revealed.
But one official agent said she knew how the rebate system worked and said she recalled the 2003 meeting where party brass said the matter was a disagreement between the NDP and Elections Manitoba.
Under election law, the official agent is liable for the return even if the agent is ignorant of alterations.
"It's bothered me over the year," said Treller in explaining why it took him so long to come forward. "There's no advantage for me coming forward because I signed that form saying everything was right."
Treller filed his paperwork with the party properly, counting the union worker as a donation in kind rather than an expense.
Once the party prepared the return, Treller and the other official agents signed them, not realizing one key change had been made.
Treller joins Vic Toews, the federal Treasury Board president, in a call for a public inquiry, making them odd bedfellows in the dispute.
Treller's NDP candidate, Schellenberg, defeated Toews, the PC incumbent in the Rossmere riding in 1999, effectively ending Toews' career in provincial politics.
It was the 1999 election, too, that saw Elections Manitoba charge Toews with exceeding his spending limit -- a mistep he blamed on a miscommunication within the Progressive Conservative party.
Last week, in a move he repeated yesterday, Toews said it's clear Elections Manitoba treated the NDP with kid gloves but came after him hard.
The story so far:
DURING the 1999 election, full-time union staff who were seconded to 13 campaigns were listed as expenses rather than donations in the campaign returns. Expenses trigger rebates to the party after voting day as part of public financing of campaigns. Donations in kind -- things like a loaned photocopier or free professional expertise -- don't trigger a rebate. NDP headquarters changed figures in 13 returns to maximize their rebate, putting the union workers in the expenses category.
The unions then billed the party for those workers' salaries, the NDP paid the bill and the union donated the amount back to the party. Elections Manitoba caught on to the scheme and, following three years of wrangling, forced the NDP to repay $76,000 in rebates the party wasn't entitled to.
What the NDP says:
THE practice of counting union volunteers as expenses was common and dated back years, and Elections Manitoba never raised an eyebrow until 1999. Fundamentally, the issue was a difference of opinion about the law, but instead of going to court to sort it out -- which would have been costly and controversial -- the NDP chose to pay back the $76,000. Soon after the 1999 election, Premier Gary Doer banned union and corporate donations to do away with just those sorts of questionable financing. And, the NDP says all parties have to re-file election expenses -- including the opposition Progressive Conservatives. "These schemes and conspiracies are only in the brain of the leader of the opposition," said Justice Minister Dave Chomiak.
What the Tories say:
THIS was a systematic scheme to trigger extra rebates, keep official agents out of the loop and violate the spirit -- if not the letter -- of the law. It also suggests that Elections Manitoba, which is supposed to be independent, has a too-cosy relationship with the ruling party. The Tories say Elections Manitoba was bullied by the NDP and shied away from charging the party under the Elections Finances Act, even though a forensic auditor clearly believed the party was in breach. The matter was also kept quiet until well after the 2003 provincial election, which the NDP won re-election. A short blurb on the Elections Manitoba website and in its annual report are the only mention of the $76,000 repayment.
What Elections Manitoba says:
NOT much. By law, the agency can't comment on investigations. But Elections Manitoba has said it shows no fear or favour in dealing with political parties and was acting on the advice of two lawyers when it decided not to lay charges against the NDP.