Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Balasko has some explaining to do

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The most troubling aspect of the election expenses rebate scheme involving 13 New Democratic Party campaigns in the 1999 general election is not that the Manitoba NDP provincial secretary wrote to Elections Manitoba asking for a new auditor to examine its 2001 annual return.

It is the fact that Chief Electoral Officer Richard Balasko appears to have complied.

Balasko has yet to explain to the Legislative Assembly and the public why Election Manitoba's investigation into the annual returns of 13 Manitoba NDP in 1999 did not result in any charges being laid when charges of overspending were laid against three Progressive Conservative candidates and one campaign manager following the 1999 general election.

It was three years after the 1999 election, in 2003, that the Manitoba NDP returned $76,036 in overpayment of election expenses reimbursements. At some point in 2001 or 2002, the party's long-time auditor resigned.

The evidence that something was seriously amiss only came to the public's attention on May 25, 2009, when Kelvin Goertzen, Tory justice critic and MLA for Steinbach, tabled three letters at a standing committee hearing called to consider Election Manitoba's annual reports since 2003.

One was a detailed letter from David J. Asselstine, C.A., the investigative and forensic auditor hired by Elections Manitoba, to Blair Graham, Elections Manitoba's legal counsel, dated June 23, 2003. The letter states that "various unions and the Manitoba NDP entered into 'quid pro quo' transactions to obtain public funds."

"I understand both you (Graham) and the CEO (chief electoral officer) agree that the Manitoba NDP was not entitled to the public funds that they have received since the mid-1980s that were generated as part of what the Manitoba NDP now refer to as a 'long standing practice.'"

The letter was written at a time when Asselstine perceived that Elections Manitoba was reluctant to respond to the alleged inappropriate conduct of the Manitoba NDP.

The official agent for the Manitoba NDP campaign in Rossmere, one of the 13 ridings named by Elections Manitoba, has since come forward to confirm problems with the financial returns and to call for a public inquiry.

Elections are relatively infrequent events conducted over a short space of time under considerable pressure. There are often new players with a steep learning curve. Elections Manitoba is organized to work with candidates and parties to explain the rules and seek compliance.

There will always be people who inadvertently make mistakes and some who push or even abuse the election rules. Manitoba's election and elections finances legislation is replete with amendments that try to head candidates and parties off various dodges and aim for a more open and accurate reporting processes. Balasko has accomplished many improvements in a long career with Elections Manitoba -- as CEO from 1990 and deputy CEO from 1980. He was secretary to the Boundaries Commission in 1978 and 1988. Balasko has spoken to the importance of amending election legislation so as to remove any hint of political interference. In the 2003 annual report he notes: "The independent administration of elections is critical to the integrity of the electoral system."

The officers of the Legislative Assembly such as the ombudsman, auditor general and chief electoral officer are not subject to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. This places an even greater onus on these bodies to report to the public as fully as possible and maintain the highest possible level of public trust.

This affair is distressing for a number of people whose personal reputation may have been called into question. They have no way of clearing their names without a clear statement from Balasko, an independent inquiry or through the courts.

The most recent commission of inquiry into allegations of infractions of elections rules in the 1995 general election was instigated by a Conservative government through Order in Council in 1998. The commissioner, Alfred M. Monnin, delivered his final report in March 1999.

It is to be hoped that an inquiry or legal proceedings will not be necessary to get to the truth.

Balasko has been invited by all of the members of the opposition to speak at the Legislative Building at 10 a.m. today, June 16.

It is an opportunity to explain unanswered questions.

Elizabeth Fleming is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2009 A10

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