Bob Mackin (Updated Aug. 2)
EXCLUSIVE: Kelowna West’s Ben Stewart is out of the BC Liberal caucus.
theBreaker.news understands there was an emergency conference call for caucus members in which they were informed that the MLA in the BC Liberal stronghold has departed because of a matter related to an Elections BC investigation that involves a donation from his constituency assistant.
Elections BC spokeswoman Rebecca Penz said that the agency “received a letter late in the day [Aug. 1] from MLA Ben Stewart in regards to political contributions to the BC Liberal Party. We will be reviewing the matter to determine if there are any issues of compliance with the Election Act.” Penz refused to release details.
Stewart did not return phone calls, but said by email in late afternoon on Aug. 2: “Sorry to advise that I voluntarily left BC Liberal caucus last evening while Elections BC rules on a request I sent them to investigate an irregular donation under new election financing rules. Have to sit out of caucus till EBC rules on the matter. I’m confident there is no wrong doing as this is an administrative matter.”
theBreaker.news has asked Stewart to provide a copy of the letter he wrote to Elections BC, but he has not responded to that request.
BC Liberal filings for the second quarter of 2019 with Elections BC show that Stewart exceeded his contribution limit and the party returned $1,200 to him on June 25. He was the only MLA listed in the prohibited contributions list for the period. Under new campaign finance rules enacted by the NDP government in 2017, individual donations were capped at $1,200 per year to each registered political party, including its candidates, nomination contestants and registered riding associations. The limit was increased to $1,225.17 for 2019.
The opposition party is already a target of an RCMP investigation announced before the 2017 election. David Butcher was named special prosecutor to look into indirect political contributions and other potential contraventions of the BC Election Act. The outcome of the investigation has not been announced.
Stewart, who founded the Quail’s Gate winery in Kelowna 30 years ago, was elected twice in Westside-Kelowna in 2009 and 2013, but gave up his seat in 2013 so that then-Premier Christy Clark could return to the Legislature after she was defeated by the NDP’s David Eby in Vancouver-Point Grey. In return for his sacrifice, Clark appointed Stewart as B.C.’s Beijing-based trade envoy for $150,000 a year plus expenses. Stewart returned to the Legislature in a 2018 by-election, following Clark’s late July 2017 resignation from politics.
The BC Liberal Feb. 14, 2018 Kelowna West by-election financing report, audited by Ernst and Young, was originally filed May 11, 2018, but has been amended twice, on Feb. 6, 2019 and May 9, 2019. The latest amendment shows that the campaign reimbursed $5,408.46 in election expenses, pushing the total income up to $121,962.02. The expenditures were amended accordingly, downward to $74,590.78.
Stewart’s departure means the BC Liberals are down to 41 seats, the same as the governing NDP, which has the support of the three Green MLAs in a confidence and supply agreement that helped topple the BC Liberals in June 2017.
The only other independent is Darryl Plecas, who left the BC Liberal caucus in September 2017 to become speaker. Plecas was the catalyst for Clark’s resignation, after he stood-up to her at a post-election Penticton caucus retreat in July 2017. Coincidentally, Stewart’s move out of caucus happened a day after the second anniversary of Clark’s last news conference as a politician where she falsely claimed that she enjoyed the full support of caucus.
theBreaker.news has asked the BC Liberal caucus for comment, but nobody from the caucus communications office is immediately available. The caucus has been meeting this week in Terrace.
This story will be updated when more information is received.
MORE TO COME…
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