On a summer night in 2017, a wide-ranging cast of Alberta political operatives was sitting around Jeff Callaway’s dining room table in northwest Calgary, eating Indian food, while the booze poured freely.
It was there they hatched the final plan for Callaway, a past president of the Wildrose Party, to enter the United Conservative Party leadership race in what would colloquially become known as the kamikaze campaign.
It had one purpose: to benefit Jason Kenney’s leadership bid by damaging that of his biggest political rival, former Wildrose leader Brian Jean. Callaway was ready to be the kamikaze candidate.
According to the accounts of two people who were there, Kenney personally set key conditions of that plan and was, at a minimum, present during discussions about funding it.
Some of the individuals since fined by the Office of the Election Commissioner (OEC) after an investigation are challenging their fines by judicial review. CBC News pored over tens of thousands of pages of documents that have been filed in the Court of Queen’s Bench as part of those cases.
Never-before published transcripts of interviews conducted by investigators with the OEC shed light on the events of the summer of 2017. None of the allegations within them has been tested in court.
The leadership race
After successfully uniting the now defunct Progressive Conservative Party and the Wildrose Party into the United Conservative Party, Kenney was running to lead the merged parties in the leadership contest in October.
A longtime MP and cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s federal government, he ran his leadership campaign from a blue pickup truck, criss-crossing Alberta, promising an end to the provincial carbon tax and a revitalized economy.
There was little light between the policy direction of the Kenney campaign and that of his closest political rival Brian Jean. But the race was fractious and sometimes personal. The winner of the UCP leadership race had a better than fair chance of becoming the next premier of Alberta.
At the table at Callaway’s house that night were political communications consultant Cameron Davies and Hardyal “Happy” Mann, widely known as a political power broker in South Asian communities, who would later become co-operating witnesses with the investigation of the Office of the Election Commissioner, key to piecing together the whole scheme.
Their interviews with investigators describe a group of loyal political operatives intent on getting Kenney elected as leader of the United Conservative Party, willing to push the boundaries of electoral norms to do it.
CBC News provided Duane Bratt, a political scientist with Mount Royal University who has closely followed developments of the kamikaze campaign story, with copies of two key interviews.
“This is the first real sort of stuff that we’ve got connecting Jason Kenney himself to what was going on with Callaway,” he said.
Kenney has denied any personal knowledge of the kamikaze campaign or its funding.
“They’ve got him meeting with Callaway and, more importantly, discussing money,” Bratt said after reading the transcripts.
“This was carefully orchestrated from the beginning.”
Others present that night in July 2017 were a who’s who of federal and provincial conservative campaign heavyweights.
There was Shuvaloy Majumdar, a former director of foreign policy in Harper’s government.
Former Harper campaign manager John Weissenberger was there, too. He’d signed on to chair Kenney’s “Unite the Right” and UCP leadership campaigns.
Brad Tennant, who would go on to be the executive director of the United Conservative Party, was there in a senior campaign role.
And Kenney was present as well.
According to an interview with Cameron Davies by OEC investigators, the group collectively came up with an agenda for Callaway to do damage to Jean’s campaign.
“It was made quite clear that Jeff’s campaign was to run kind of a dark-horse campaign, that was felt Jason’s team just wouldn’t be able to do effectively,” Davies said in the interview.
“Jason Kenney’s negatives [polling] numbers were too negative to be able to start slinging against anybody.”
Jean had enough support, particularly among rural Wildrose Party supporters, to be a concern for the Kenney camp.
According to several sources who were working on Kenney’s campaign, a marginal victory was simply not good enough for Kenney or his campaign strategists. They wanted big numbers to telegraph his popularity and prove that the right was truly united in Alberta.
‘A lot of deeply rooted resentment’
Callaway was willing to sacrifice his own ambitions for that cause. Davies told investigators Callaway had a “lot of deeply rooted resentment” toward Jean and that “fuelled his willingness to do what Jason wanted.”
Callaway’s list of grievances, according to Davies, included “his perception of getting bullied around by Brian Jean; poor leadership that he experienced with Brian Jean.”
Callaway, he told investigators, also believed Jean “undermined” the effort to unite the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose behind the scenes.
Not everyone at the table was in agreement with the scheme. Davies said Kenney’s campaign manager Weissenberger “took it as a bit of an insult” that Kenney’s campaign needed assistance to secure a decisive victory.
He was, according to both interviews, convinced by former Wildroser Tennant that Kenney hadn’t yet won the full loyalty of grassroots Wildrose members.
They needed Callaway to peel support away from Jean.
When Callaway agreed to run and attack Jean, Davies said, Kenney was “laughing and drinking all night. He was very appreciative of the fact that Callaway was willing to do this.”
He quoted Kenney as saying, “I don’t want to know the details. You guys co-ordinate it with my team.”
But Davies said Kenney did have some conditions of his own.
“Jason was very adamant that Callaway had to withdraw at a set date and Callaway had to endorse Jason Kenney.”
Callaway wanted an option to stay in for the long haul, Davies said, but Kenney made it clear that was a non-starter.
As it turns out, running a sham campaign isn’t against electoral law but funding it with irregular donations is, and OEC investigators wanted to know where the money came from and who knew about it.
The OEC has since alleged that its investigation revealed that the bulk of Callaway’s campaign funding, $60,000, came from a last-minute influx of corporate cash. Corporate donations are banned by Alberta’s election laws. The money was allegedly funnelled into the campaign through so-called “straw” donors, who agreed to put their names on donations they’d never given.
But that night, as the plan was hatched, money was of little concern, according to Mann and Davies.
“Don’t worry about it. It will be handled, we’ll raise money,” Davies told investigators was the collective response to questions about funding Callaway’s campaign.
In a separate interview with OEC, Mann corroborated that account, drawing a straight line to Kenney.
“I said, ‘Jason, if you want all this to happen, then from where the funds come?’ And I been told directly by Jason that funds will come.”
He would later tell investigators he couldn’t remember who said that, only that it was said.
Those accounts are in stark contrast to what Kenney would claim about his involvement. He has admitted being present at the July 2017 meeting, but only to solicit Callaway’s “endorsement.” As for money?
“I had absolutely no knowledge about how they financed their campaign,” he told reporters about Callaway’s camp on March 18, 2019.
Bratt said the interviews blow a hole in that claim.
“It didn’t seem plausible, but now you’ve got two people independent of one another saying that Kenney either said money’s not the problem or was in the room when money was being discussed.”
A spokesperson for Kenney told CBC News in an email they weren’t familiar with the court documents and previous public statements on the matter stand.
Certainly, Kenney was grateful to Callaway. In October 2017, shortly after he’d dropped out of the race and endorsed Kenney, there was a thank-you party held at Callaway’s house, according to the interviews.
Davies and Mann said Kenney presented the dark-horse candidate with a bottle of “Alberta Dark Horse” whisky. The metaphor of the tongue-in-cheek gift wasn’t lost on any of the seasoned political players celebrating that night.
It may have all ended on that high note had an anonymous whistleblower not sent a complaint to the Office of the Election Commissioner, which looked into the matter.
Since then, as the result of the largest electoral investigation ever in Alberta, more than $200,000 in fines have been levied against Callaway, campaign staff and “straw” donors. Many of the fines are the subject of judicial reviews.
Evidence gathered through that investigation and a further criminal complaint spawned an RCMP investigation into the funding of the kamikaze campaign and alleged voter identity theft during the same leadership race.
The statement from the RCMP says three years in, its investigation into “voter irregularities” in the UCP leadership race is still active.
“This is a very large and complex investigation that has involved many years of work and multiple avenues of investigation,” the statement said.
The office of the premier hasn’t responded to multiple emails from CBC News asking if Jason Kenney has been questioned by the RCMP or Elections Alberta or if either has requested an interview.