Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Put off byelection until MP's legal status is clarified

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OTTAWA -- Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Peter Penashue stepped down from cabinet and resigned his seat as the MP for Labrador Thursday.

But while he and the party say he will run in the byelection that will be called there, a debate rages about whether he should be allowed to be on the ballot.

Penashue has been under fire since last summer after it became apparent his slim 79-vote winning margin in the riding of Labrador was earned in part with a campaign that spent more than it was allowed and accepted illegal donations.

For months, Penashue and the government had a single response any time a question about the problem was raised. Namely, that yes, there were errors made and Penashue is working with Elections Canada to rectify the problems.

In one infuriating interview with the CBC, Penashue repeated that line at least seven times when asked various questions about the matter.

But last week he could duck and cover no longer, as new financial documents were about to be made public showing the breadth of the issue.

During the 2011 federal election, Penashue's campaign accepted 28 illegal donations, including an $18,710.54 in-kind contribution from Provincial Airlines, which didn't charge the campaign for all the flights Penashue took to travel around the sparsely populated riding. There was another $27,850 in illegal cash donations.

It's a remarkable number, considering the cash donations alone account for almost half the total donations the Penashue campaign raised during the election. On top of that, it appears he likely overspent the maximum amount allowed by Elections Canada by accepting the in-kind donations of airfare from Provincial Airlines.

The Penashue campaign repaid the cash donations to the receiver general -- not to the donors -- mainly in November. One amount, for $1,000, was repaid shortly after the 2011 election. The airfare donations were repaid just three weeks ago.

According to Penashue, it's no big deal. The mistakes were made by an "inexperienced volunteer," he said, a volunteer who incidentally was later appointed to a plum board position in Newfoundland. Nevertheless, Penashue is taking responsibility by resigning and asking to be re-elected in a byelection.

"My record as member of Parliament for Labrador and minister in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government over the past two years is one that I am very proud of," he said in a statement.

On the surface, resigning is the right thing to do. If we are going to have a democracy, elections have to be run openly and all the candidates have to play by the same rules.

Penashue's win is clearly tainted by his breaking the rules. But should he now he allowed to run again?

If he was charged and convicted of an offence under the Elections Act, the answer would be no. So far, he has been charged with nothing, and, although he says mistakes were made, he says he didn't know about them and they were not made on purpose.

It is hard, if not impossible, to believe nobody realized there was funny business going on. Elections Canada has easily accessible, easily understood manuals for campaigns that detail what is and isn't allowed. It has staff available to answer questions at all times if a campaign isn't sure.

On top of that, Penashue now has the power of incumbency in his hands, a power earned through cheating. So running again, he already has an advantage.

The best route out of this is for Harper not to call a byelection until Elections Canada decides whether to charge Penashue.

Harper has six months. Elections Canada has had nearly two years to figure out what happened, and now that money has been repaid, decisions on charges should not be far behind.

There may not be enough time for an entire trial within six months, but at the very least, voters should know whether Elections Canada thinks there is enough evidence to charge Penashue before they go to the polls.

Either that, or Penashue should sit this one out.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 18, 2013 A6

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