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Does Richard Balasko know the difference between the hot seat and the electric chair?

The NDP government of Manitoba heaved a huge collective sigh of relief when the Legislature rose last Thursday.

Big mistake.

The government members, particularly Premier Gary Doer, thought they had dodged a bullet that came too close for comfort. For almost three weeks they were on the grill, defending themselves against revelations that the NDP defrauded the public purse of $76,000 in the 1999 election by falsifying financial returns. Imagine their relief when the session finally came to a close.

Well, frying pan -- meet fire.

Instead of heading to the cottage to relax, the NDP are looking into the abyss.

Manitoba is hurling towards a constitutional crisis the likes of which hasn't been seen in living memory.

Richard Balasko, Manitoba's Chief Electoral Officer, who's up to his neck in credible allegations that he's been in bed with the NDP ever since the 1999 election, thumbed his nose at the Opposition Tuesday.

He was asked politely to come to a meeting of Opposition members to answer questions about Election Manitoba's dubious behavior when it came to the NDP's organized scheme to collect unwarranted rebates. In a letter declining the invitation, he gave them the figurative finger.

Balasko lectured the Opposition leaders that he was only responsible to the Legislature as a whole, not their rump, and that he had already answered everything he was going to answer at the meetings of the Legislative Affairs Committee he's obligated to attend.

In short, screw you.

Izzat so? Balasko didn't realize the fatal mistake he just made.


Up to now, the Chief Electoral Officer has been Manitoba's Mr. Cellophane. Remember the song from Chicago?

Cellophane

Mister cellophane

Should have been my name

Mister cellophane

'cause you can look right through me

Walk right by me

And never know I'm there!

Well, now, Richard Balasko is on the radar. And that blip is freaking big and getting bigger.

It turns out the Chief Electoral Officer is a pretty powerful friend when you're trying to hide a political scandal.

Manitoba's Elections Act outlines the "accountability" that Balasko claimed protected him from the Opposition's nosy questions.

He has to deliver an annual report to the Legislature to say what the hell he's been doing all year, and after each election, he has to make a report about the conduct of the election. The reports go to the Standing Committee of the Assembly on Legislative Affairs where he answers questions.

That's it, folks.

Balasko failed to say in his letter that the committee meets about once a year, for a couple of hours, purely at the will of the majority NDP and counting all the points of order they can raise to break up the questioning and eat up the time.

Other than that, he answers to no one.

Imagine that.

The man responsible for ensuring that elections are run fairly and that people have faith in the electoral system has to answer questions for two hours a year.

But what happens what there's suspicion the man has gone dirty, how can the elected representatives investigate?

Guess.

They can't.

Especially if the allegations are that he's been colluding with the ruling party, which can stifle every attempt to get at the truth.

And that's what we're seeing today.

The Opposition has uncovered credible evidence that Balasko and his office treated the NDP with kid gloves when they got caught falsifying election returns in a scheme that had been going on for more than a decade.

At the same time Elections Manitoba dropped the hammer on Opposition members who made honest mistakes, laying charges, harassing one candidate mercilessly for 80 cents in overspending, forcing candidates to decide whether to fight the charges and pay thousands of dollars in legal fees or pay a paltry, but humiliating, fine instead.

Balasko's fingerprints are all over.

* An Elections Manitoba forensic auditor turned up an elaborate cheque-swapping scheme by the NDP to trick Elections Manitoba into giving them $76,000 in rebates for election expenses they never incurred. Balasko was informed.

* The auditor notified Balasko that the NDP had been running the same scheme since the mid-80's.

* He also said he believed the NDP comptroller was lying to him and that the NDP's secretary had filed a phony complaint to disrupt, or obstruct the continuing investigation into NDP finances. A letter, which Balasko has never contradicted, says the Chief Electoral Officer concurred.

* The NDP attacked the auditor's integrity, and Balasko never came to his defence.

* The NDP threatened that the auditor would be punished by being frozen out of all future business with the government. Balasko froze payments to the auditor until he got tired of working for free and stepped away from the file.

* Elections Manitoba failed to investigate the NDP insiders responsible for the scheme to defraud the public, choosing instead to blame the agents who signed the false financial statements which had been altered without their knowledge by a central NDP auditor.

* Elections Manitoba failed to investigate the unions who were full conspirators in the election finances fraud.

* The NDP was allowed to refile corrected election returns without an auditor's signature as required by law. Balasko says that since Elections Manitoba told the NDP what corrections were necessary, they accepted the unaudited amended returns as proper. Except that an auditor could have included comments about the process to obtain the returns (it took 3 years) and could recommend further investigations, if not prosecutions. How convenient that Balasko took those options off the table.

* The NDP filed the unadited, amended 1999 financial statements two days before calling an election in 2003. Coincidence, says Balasko.

* Elections Manitoba kept secret the refiling until four days before Christmas, 2003 Coincidence, says Balasko.

When questioned about many of these strange decisions, Balasko said

- he depended on secret legal advice which he can't discuss,

- just as he can't discuss his secret negotiations with the NDP regarding their phony 1999 election returns, and

- just as he can't discuss why he laid charges against Conservative and Liberal candidates but let the NDP to quietly slide.


Balasko must have thought that with the NDP running interference for him in the Legislature and him running interference for them outside, he had closed the door on the Opposition and the upstart news media that have bothered to follow the scandal.

But thanks to his directing us to the Elections Act, we noticed one chink in his armour.

Under the heading REMOVING OR SUSPENDING A CHIEF ELECTORAL OFFICER we read:

Suspension if Assembly not sitting
26(2) When the Assembly is not sitting, the Lieutenant Governor in Council may suspend the chief electoral officer for cause, if advised to do so in writing by a majority of a committee consisting of the President of the Executive Council and the recognized leaders of the members belonging to the political parties in opposition.

In real language, that means Lt. Governor John Harvard can suspend Balasko if asked in writing to do so by two out of three members of a committee that consists of Premier Gary Doer, and the Leaders of the political parties in Opposition.

The Constitutional entanglements are mindboggling.

Given that the allegations against Balasko are that he had colluded with the NDP under leader Gary Doer, how can Doer even sit on the committee examining the allegations?

Will Doer argue that Jon Gerrard is not the leader of a party in Opposition given that the Liberals don't have enough elected members to qualify as a recognized party?

Will Doer refuse to sign an order in council if the other two members of the committee vote to demand the suspension of Balasko?

Will Harvard suspend the Chief Electoral Officer? Or will he spark a constitutional crisis by rejecting the will of the committee legally empowered to demand the suspension?

Or will Richard Balasko do the right thing and ask Gary Doer to convene a public inquiry to restore the public's confidence in the electoral process?

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