“A vote-rigging plot constitutes an unconscionable debasement of the citizen’s right to vote. To reduce the voting rights of individuals is a violation of our democratic system.”
– Alfred M. Monnin, Election Inquiry Commissioner, March 29,1999
In the final days of the 1995 Manitoba Provincial election campaign, a newspaper story appeared about a Tory campaign manager, Allan Aitken. Mr. Aitken admitted that he had provided advice to three independent aboriginal candidates running in several rural ridings with high numbers of aboriginal voters. The story went nowhere, with denials of wrong-doing from all around.
Elections Manitoba conducted an investigation following an official complaint from the NDP, and several months later declared there was no reason to lay charges.
Between the fall of 1997 and spring of 1998, I talked with a number of individuals who had information about the events surrounding the election.
One was a former candidate who told me that during the election, he heard the Tory campaign manager discuss a plan to use the independents as vote-splitters. But there was no proof, no first hand witness, and no one willing to go forward. It amounted to a rehash of old speculation.
Finding and interviewing any of the candidates involved proved extremely difficult. One, Darryl Sutherland, had dropped out of sight after the election. No one knew where he was, or admitted to knowing. It took weeks of casting a net of telephone calls, messages and personal inquiries with relatives and friends, before Darryl Sutherland called me one day in 1998.
He was angry, abusive and offered no information, or confirmation of anything. Over a period of a couple of months of cautious, careful phone conversations, I convinced him to at least meet and talk with me. One night I traveled to the Peguis reserve, about three hours north of Winnipeg.
Once we sat down to talk, Darryl Sutherland shared some remarkable information.
He was convinced to run as an Independent by Allan Aitken, and local Conservative Party heavy weight, Cubby Barrett. Sutherland went along with the idea because he was naive, trusting and felt he owed Barrett his loyalty. He laughed at the suggestion that Elections Manitoba’s investigation had been “thorough” as the Chief Electoral Officer had said. No one had ever talked to Darryl Sutherland about his candidacy.
Cubby Barrett wouldn’t agree to any interview. Neither would Allan Aitken. Taras Sokolyk did agree to an interview on the steps of the legislature. He had since become the Premier’s chief of staff. Taras Sokolyk denied everything, and called the allegations “untrue and politically motivated”. The Premier himself stepped into the fray. Gary Filmon dismissed the pending CBC investigation as well, by saying he trusted Elections Manitoba more than the information he was hearing from the CBC’s inquiries. Elections Manitoba refused to discuss any aspect of its investigation.
There were at least another half a dozen people contacted or interviewed in order to judge the reliability of the picture that was emerging.
The potential consequences of the story weighed heavily on my conscience. The allegations, once public could devastate careers, and likely affect the political balance in Manitoba, which had been governed by the Conservatives for a decade.
The Conservative Party and the Premier’s office was well aware of this. The Premier’s press secretary warned me I’d be ruining reputations by broadcasting baseless allegations. The story, she said, would be “a one day wonder”.
The first elements of the story aired on the morning of June 22, 1998. Two radio news stories were part of the CBC Morning news program, World Report. These aired from coast to coast. In Manitoba, the stories set off a hailstorm of questions in the legislative assembly. Premier Gary Filmon at first denied anything about the story was credible. He suggested it was NDP sleazy-mongering.
Longer, more detailed stories aired simultaneously on CBC radio’s “The World at Six” nationally at six p.m. local time, and on CBC TV’s “24Hours” in Manitoba. The strength of the allegations became increasingly difficult for the Premier to reject.
After a tumultuous week in the legislature, the Premier had a remarkable about face, and agreed to a public inquiry. It would be several months, however before anyone would know exactly why Gary Filmon had decided to an Inquiry was his only option.
The Inquiry lasted more than thirty days spread out over several months from November 1998, to February 1999. What Manitobans learned, was this: there was indeed a plan hatched by Taras Sokolyk, Allan Aitken and Cubby Barret to front several candidates in the 1995 election. Five thousand dollars in cash was handed to one candidate who was told to lie to Elections Manitoba about where the money came from. Taras Sokolyk used four thousand dollars of PC party money to kick start the scheme, then enlisted the help of his friend Julian Benson to secretly pay it back, and alter the Tory party records so the transactions would be difficult to trace. Julian Benson was the Secretary to Treasury Board, the man who handled Manitoba’s money. He was also a friend and confidant to Premier Gary Filmon.
Other high profile Conservatives were also called to testify, and they boasted of a “win at all costs” attitude when it comes to elections. Bob Kozminiski, a businessman and Conservative fund raiser bragged to the Inquiry he’d do “anything” to defeat the NDP.
A day after his testimony, Mr. Filmon went on Manitoba’s most-listened to talk show, and named me personally, suggesting my ethics should be investigated by the CBC ombudsman. He misquoted testimony, and did nothing to challenge the talk show host, who suggested it was a mistake for Manitoba tax payers to be paying “a million dollars” for this inquiry.
Weeks of testimony later, Commissioner Alfred Monnin, a retired judge, released his report.
“As a trial judge I conducted a number of trials. As an appellate court judge I read many thousands of pages of transcript in a variety of cases: criminal, civil, family, etc. In all my years on the Bench I have never encountered as many liars in one proceeding as I did during this inquiry.”
– Alfred Monnin, March 29, 1999 Alfred Monnin confirmed the original CBC investigation. A group of top ranking Conservatives, right in the Premier’s Office, thought they could get away with manipulating an election.
But because the two year limit for prosecution had expired no one faced criminal charges.
As a result Monnin recommended changing Manitoba’s election laws to close the loop holes through which these individuals were able to slide.
Among the significant changes enacted by the legislature, as a result of the Inquiry:
The Chief Electoral Officer was given broad powers of search and seizure of election records.
The limitation period was extended to allow a prosecution to commence within one year from WHENEVER the Chief Electoral Officer has reasonable and probable grounds an offence has been committed.
The law for maintaining election financial records was changed to require candidates and parties to keep them for five years, from two, with additional years required as the Chief Electoral Officer sees fit.
Auditors must now resign if their professional judgement or objectivity is impaired, and they must inform Elections Manitoba of the specific reasons for that resignation.
Monnin recommended the parties adopt Codes of Ethics, as originally recommended by the Royal Commission on Electoral reform in 1991. Since Monnin’s report, the three main parties have all adopted codes of ethics designed to prevent anyone from believing they have tacit approval to cheat at elections.
But as well as legislative changes, there were more profound changes as a result of the Inquiry called in the wake of CBC’s investigation.
The dark stain on the previously scandal-free Conservative government had influence on voters when they went to the polls again in September 1999. The Conservatives, after 11 successful years in government, lost to the NDP.
Since then, two of the key players in the scheme – Conservative Comptroller Gordon MacFarlane, and former secretary to Treasury Board Julian Benson- have each been investigated by their profession. The Institute of Chartered Accountants found each guilty of a variety of offences, and fined each of them $10,000.
While the provincial government has decided not to lay any criminal charges in connection with the scheme, a private prosecution, launched by a citizen, is before the Manitoba courts.