Premier Heather Stefanson breached election finance rule in bid for PC leadership: commissioner

Heather Stefanson breached election finance rules in her bid last fall to be voted leader of the Progressive Conservative party and, by extension, premier of Manitoba, according to Manitoba Commissioner of Elections.

Stefanson defeated rival Shelly Glover in the PC leadership race that ended Oct. 30, less than two months after Brian Pallister stepped down as premier and party leader.

Tim Johnson, provincial secretary chief financial officer for the NDP, later filed a complaint with Manitoba commissioner of elections Bill Bowles.

Johnson accused Stefanson of incurring expenses for her PC party leadership bid prior to the official start of the contest period, which is an offence under the Elections Financing Act, Bowles said in a letter dated May 12. 

Bowles said during the course of an investigation Stefanson confirmed she incurred $1,800 in expenses prior the campaign period start date of Aug 23.

“Premier Stefanson acknowledged that with the benefit of hindsight these expenses were incurred prematurely and apologized for her error,” Bowles writes.

“She explained that she had failed to consider spending money on her campaign at that time was prohibited.”

His letter goes on to state he did not find evidence to suggest Stefanson’s campaign breached the rules intentionally.

As such, he ruled it wouldn’t be in the public interest to prosecute the premier over the breach. Instead, Bowles issued a formal caution to Stefanson.

“The early start to one leadership hopeful’s campaign may have resulted in a benefit to that candidate and I don’t believe it would be appropriate for me to entirely ignore this breach of the legislation,” his statement reads.

In his formal caution to Stefanson, Bowles said it’s the responsibility of leaders and their campaigns to be aware of the rules guiding election spending.

Jordan Sisson, Stefanson’s campaign manager, repeated that the breach wasn’t intentional.

“Premier/MLA Stefanson has already apologized for the unintended error,” reads a statement from Sisson on Friday.

Sisson said the $1,800 expense was related to an Aug. 18, 2021, event at Waverley Heights Community Centre, in which Stefanson announced her intention to run for the PC leadership.

NDP MLA Malaya Marcelino accused Stefanson of failing to follow rules “everyone else abides by.” She pointed to the premier’s failure to disclose $31 million in personal property sales as one example.

“Manitobans hold their political leaders to a higher standard,” Marcelino said. “It’s clear Premier Stefanson can’t meet that bar.”