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Keith Gerein: Press escalates on Kenney, which RCMP connects probe to UCP leadership law

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney talks about an RCMP probe in the UCP leadership. UCP's proposed Open Business Act at a press conference in the Vienna Bakery, 10207 63 Ave., in Edmonton on Friday, March 15, 2019.

David Bloom / Mail

United conservative leader Jason Kenney held a press conference on Friday at an Edmonton bakery, which spoke in front of a rack of sourdough bread.

Journalists half expected Kenney to become a little sour himself and know that he would be asked how his party would have to lead the upcoming election campaign under the cloud of an RCMP survey.

After all, Kenney has been exasperated in the past when asked about alleged irregularities that may have occurred a year and a half ago during the UCP leadership.

After the RCMP confirmed on Friday that they are now involved in an ongoing probe of Jeff Callaway's leadership campaign, it really seemed like it could give yeast to make Kenya's resentment again.

Still, the UCP leader was at his best behavior, answering many questions about the case in a professional and calm experience, with no hint of irritation.

He must keep it up for at least several weeks, when the investigation is being developed and campaigns are ramping up.

And you can bet NDP won't make it easy for him.

Within hours of the first CBC story breaking the news, a seemingly newborn NDP leader was Rachel Notley on the offensive, demanding that Kenney "come clean" on what he knew about Callaway's campaign.

"If the shoe was on the second foot and a politician trying to lead the province was under investigation by the RCMP, he would probably say that the person cannot be premiere and he was right," Notley said.

Notley's attack was a bit off the mark, because there is no definitive evidence that Kenney himself is under investigation.

Yet she was not wrong to suggest that this controversy increase in the worst possible time for the UCP leader.

Remember there are accusations Kenney and Callaway collaborated on a system to run Callaway as a kamikaze candidate during the 2017 leadership, to bring down Kenney's main rival Brian Jean.

Kenney and Callaway have denied it carefully, but it has not ceased to be commissioner Lorne Gibson to investigate whether any of Callaway's funding came from donors who did not send their own money.

That the charge appears to have some substance, since Gibson already has fined a donor to Callaway's donation "with money donated or provided by another person" campaign.

And the UCP last week released one of the candidates in Calgary and claimed he had not been directly with the party about his financial contribution to Callaway's campaign.

According to CBC's reporting, Gibson probe has also "identified potential non-compliant infringements" by the Commissioner, so the RCMP was introduced.

It's a significant development, but it's still unclear exactly what Mounties is investigating and whether any of it is focused on Kenney.

If the UCP leader is worried, he didn't show it Friday. He told reporters quietly that he had not been contacted by the RCMP but would cooperate with some investigation.

It's a message you can expect to hear a lot in the next few weeks, especially as Notley now has even more reason to delay a ballot.

An interesting part of CBC's story was news that the RCMP had been in contact with at least two of Kenney's chief executives who claimed to be part of a kamikaze system.

It indicates a possibility that the UCP leader is subject to the probe, and you can expect the NDP to try as hard as possible to connect the dots to the public.

Kenney can, and has, dismissed these accusers because they have been suspended from the party for their own allegedly bad behavior, according to the UCP, and may have an ax to grind.

But he may find it harder to reject Jean.

After being defeated for the UCP leadership, Jean has been relatively silent about the alleged plot against him. But when the news of RCMP's engagement was reported on Friday, he went to social media to say he had warned both Kenney and Stephen Harper about the possibility of such a development.

What more Jean might have to say about all this – to the public or to the RCMP – is uncertain, but it is clear that he is worried about the UCP.

It was especially clear on Thursday when stories circulated that Jean planned to render the provincial policy with the Freedom Conservative Party. Almost immediately triggered tweets from both Harpist and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe calls for the need for conservative unity.

Such a response from political heavy hitters would not occur to anyone, but Jean is still a popular figure in some conservative circles with the potential to be a regular tower on the UCP side.

In the end, the great mystery of all this is not just what the investigation can produce, but whether it is financially struggling for Albertans, cares enough or sees enough scandal to swing them away from UCP.

I suspect Kenney still has that overall issue, but the traces of breadcrumbs exercised by investigators can make their way to victory much more difficult.

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