Manitoba's elections watchdog buried information about charges laid against two Tory constituency officials following the 2019 provincial election.

Manitoba's elections watchdog buried information about charges laid against two Tory constituency officials following the 2019 provincial election.

And the lack of transparency from Manitoba's Commissioner of Elections is troubling and inexplicable, ethics and political experts say.

Multiple charges have been laid after a brief mention of "financial irregularities" involving two unnamed constituency association officials was buried in the commissioner's latest annual report.

The accused are to appear in provincial court next month.

Rajbir Grewal, 30, and Rajpal Grewal, 32, face several Election Financing Act charges, including obstructing an investigation and withholding information. At the time of the 2019 provincial election, they were listed as treasurer and president, respectively, of the Progressive Conservative party's Waverley constituency association. They are presumed innocent and scheduled to appear in court Oct. 6 and Oct. 7, respectively.

"It’s troubling that charges have been laid and the appointed officials have not been transparent about what the charges are." — Arthur Schafer, founding director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba

Manitoba elections commissioner Bill Bowles — who was appointed in 2011 — didn't respond to questions about the alleged violations that he alluded to in his annual report when he was contacted last week.

Elections Manitoba also declined to comment, saying it has nothing to do with compliance and enforcement investigations. It provided the name of the outside counsel appointed by Bowles to prosecute the cases. When contacted, lawyer Evan Roitenberg provided the names of the accused but not the charges, which the Free Press learned at provincial court.

"Why has the commission made it so difficult for the public to find out charges have been laid?" said Arthur Schafer, founding director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba.

"It’s troubling that charges have been laid and the appointed officials have not been transparent about what the charges are."

Manitoba's Commissioner of Elections has the authority to launch an investigation and recommend prosecution if there are grounds to believe that laws may have been broken, said University of Manitoba political studies professor emeritus Paul Thomas.

The commissioner hires an outside investigator, often a lawyer, to conduct a probe, give the accused an opportunity to rebut any negative information brought against them and prepare a report, Thomas said.

"The integrity of the rules and the enforcement of the rules is a promise to the citizens of Manitoba that no individuals, or parties or groups will be allowed to take unfair advantage of the rules ‐ that there is a level playing field, everyone is held accountable and those who violate them will be held responsible." — Arthur Schafer

"You don't want to prematurely disclose that someone is accused of having done something wrong without having done a full investigation," he said.

"Once it's headed to court, I would've thought you should be prepared to explain and defend what you've done. If you get to the stage where you've charged people, it's serious. We should know the names of these individuals. I would think that information is fair to both sides."

Two facing charges

Rajpal Grewal, 32, is facing three Election Financing Act charges and is set to appear in provincial court on Oct. 7. He is charged with obstructing an investigation, withholding information or materials relevant to an investigation and failing to provide information sought by the commissioner or a representative for the purposes of an investigation.

Rajpal Grewal, 32, is facing three Election Financing Act charges and is set to appear in provincial court on Oct. 7. He is charged with obstructing an investigation, withholding information or materials relevant to an investigation and failing to provide information sought by the commissioner or a representative for the purposes of an investigation.

The offences are alleged to have been committed between Sept. 25, 2020, and Dec. 1, 2020. Rajpal Grewal was the Manitoba Progressive Conservative party's Waverley constituency association president from June of 2017 until November 2019, during which time he helped Economic Development and Jobs Minister Jon Reyes get elected, according to Grewal's LinkedIn profile. Reyes' press secretary deferred to the PC caucus for comment.

Rajbir Grewal, 30 — the Waverly constituency association's former treasurer, is facing eight charges and has an Oct. 6 court date. The charges include: omitting to state material facts when providing information in a report or record under the Election Financing Act; knowingly giving false information in a record or report filed with the chief electoral officer; failing to comply with the required duties of a financial officer by failing to keep proper records of all income, including contributions, transfers and loans; failing to comply with duties of a financial officer by failing to file statements and other information of the constituency association with the chief electoral officer as required; and failing to ensure that every disbursement, including transfers made for the constituency association’s account, were substantiated by an invoice or voucher. The offences are alleged to have occurred between June 20, 2017 and Oct. 29, 2019.

Between Sept. 25, 2020 and Dec. 1, 2020, Rajbir Grewal is accused of obstruction of a person carrying out an investigation under the Election Financing Act, withholding information or materials relevant to an investigation under the act, and failing to provide the commissioner of elections or his representative with the information sought for the purposes of an investigation.

When asked about the charges Monday, Manitoba PC party spokesman Keith Stewart said in an email to the Free Press that the party was alerted by the Waverley PC Association in the fall of 2019 about financial irregularities in constituency bank records. The financial situation as reported by the outgoing president and the treasurer were not in accordance with the bank statements issued by the constituency's bank. As a result, incorrect information was supplied to Elections Manitoba for the years 2017 and 2018, the party said. As soon as it discovered the irregularity, it alerted Elections Manitoba, Stewart said. Neither the party nor any constituency members were found responsible, he said, declining to comment further on the charges against Rajpal and Rajbir Grewal.

The charges against Rajpal and Rajbir Grewal have not been proven in court.

Election finance laws are fundamental to a democratic society and have to be taken seriously and handled transparently, Schafer said.

"The integrity of the rules and the enforcement of the rules is a promise to the citizens of Manitoba that no individuals, or parties or groups will be allowed to take unfair advantage of the rules — that there is a level playing field, everyone is held accountable and those who violate them will be held responsible," the ethicist said.

"If someone cheats on election financing, they gain an unfair advantage. In a democratic society that’s considered a deeply serious crime. It’s not a trivial matter like a parking ticket. Following election financing laws goes to the integrity of our democracy— if the rules aren’t enforced and the guilty aren't convicted, blamed, shamed and held accountable, the public becomes cynical.

Schafer said the erosion of public trust in democracy is clear to see just over the border, where many Republicans are claiming losses suffered by the party are because of "rigged elections."

"I think American democracy is under real threat at the moment," he said, adding that one constituency association facing charges of violating election financing laws here isn't necessarily a threat, but whenever election officials aren't forthcoming, it becomes a concern.

"The process whereby the rules are enforced has to be seen to be scrupulously honest and transparent, and people involved have to be held accountable," Schafer said.

"Any hint of secrecy, coverup and concealment — or the suspicion of a coverup — feeds cynicism and mistrust. The elections commissioner has a stringent obligation to apply and enforce the rules with integrity."

The harshest penalty for an individual charged under the act is a $5,000 fine.

— With files from Dean Pritchard

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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