Former staff member alleges NDP MLA pressured her into political work on government time

By Kieran LeavittStarMetro Edmonton

A former staff member with Alberta’s Legislative Assembly Office (LAO) has come forward with allegations that a New Democrat MLA pushed her into doing partisan work in violation of government rules.

In August 2015, Kathleen Westergaard moved to Hinton, Alta., to work as an LAO staff member for Eric Rosendahl, the NDP MLA for West Yellowhead.

Staff members are generally tasked with helping MLAs with the day-to-day running of constituency offices. As government staff, they can volunteer at political events on their own time but are prohibited from working on partisan activities while on the job.

But Westergaard told StarMetro in a recent interview that she believes her contract was terminated by Rosendahl last June because she had refused to help with his re-election campaign.

StarMetro reached out to a spokesperson for the NDP for comment but was told, “It is our policy not to comment on specifics regarding personnel matters.”

When StarMetro presented Rosendahl with the allegations, a staff member sent a statement from him that also said he would not comment on personnel matters.

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Westergaard said the requests to pitch in on partisan work started in August 2015. As a single mother and graduate student, she says she was dependent on the income and initially agreed.

She said Rosendahl pushed her to sign up new party members, and she would carry around membership forms in envelopes to hand out to people who were interested. Soliciting memberships for political parties is considered partisan work under rules governing LAO staff.

“Then I told him he needed to phone these people back, and he just wouldn’t, he wouldn’t phone them back and he would make me phone them back,” Westergaard said.

“He forced me to do it. If I didn’t, he would yell at me and threaten to fire me if I didn’t.”

Text messages from 2016, obtained by StarMetro, show Rosendahl asking Westergaard and another LAO employee to help him get re-elected in the provincial election later this year.

In the text messages, exchanged after the 2016 federal NDP convention in Edmonton, Rosendahl asked Westergaard to come to a provincial NDP convention. She responded by saying the previous federal convention wasn’t a good experience for her.

Westergaard alleges the expectation that she toe the party line sometimes bordered on bullying. She told StarMetro that at the federal NDP convention in 2016, Rosendahl yelled at her for voting in favour of the Leap Manifesto, a plan for Canada to phase out the use of fossil fuels.

Westergaard said she was a member of the Indigenous caucus at the convention as a volunteer and was dressed in her Indigenous regalia with a number of others when the incident happened.

“He just freaked out and lost it on me, and I was so upset,” she said.

Westergaard told StarMetro it marked the end of her desire to volunteer in politics, but according to the text messages, Rosendahl still wanted her to come to the provincial convention.

In the messages, Rosendahl says he might be able to help with expenses, but Westergaard suggests that he should look to other people to come help him.

In the text messages, Westergaard resists, but Rosendahl says that such events are important and that “there is no argument about this.”

Rosendahl said he needs help getting re-elected, but Westergaard responded that he should personally send out invitations to other people to help, since she believes her inviting them with her office email would be against the rules of her employment.

“We probably can’t use letterhead and the office email is probably out too,” Westergaard texted him.

“We (have) been given very clear direction that party business cannot go through the office addresses.”

Rosendahl responded that he gets frustrated over “this stuff” and “if I am not there in the future, you won’t be either!”

She asked him to send his request for her to do this work in writing, so “this way it will be clear that I am following (your) direction,” she wrote. Westergaard also decided to screenshot the messages in order to document his insistence that she do partisan work.

Westergaard alleges that she was eventually fired without cause on June 12, 2018. She alleges she received no indication she was about to lose her job.

StarMetro obtained a copy of a disclosure of wrongdoing form that Westergaard submitted to Alberta’s Public Interest Disclosure Office a few weeks after losing her job.

Legislated under the Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblower Protection) Act, the Public Interest Commissioner is there for public servants to submit disclosures of wrongdoing and “complaints of reprisal.”

One example of wrongdoing as defined by the commissioner is “gross mismanagement of employees, by a pattern of behaviour or conduct of a systemic nature that indicates a problem in the culture of the organization relating to bullying, harassment or intimidation.”

An investigator at the commissioner’s office presented with Westergaard’s allegations could neither confirm nor deny that an investigation was ongoing.

“The office of the Public Interest Commissioner has been made aware of a potential issue of constituency office resources being used for political activities and is also examining whether or not this issue extends beyond any one individual Member of the Legislative Assembly,” reads a statement provided to StarMetro.

“The Public Interest Commissioner is required to report the findings of any investigation involving any MLA to the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly.”

The investigator said most investigations don’t result in findings of wrongdoing due to inaccuracies with complaints, misunderstandings or policy violations that don’t mean something illegal took place.

Westergaard said the office contacted her around the summer of 2018 to follow up on her request and she was told it was recommending an investigation. However, the office does not comment publicly on potential investigations.

A spokesperson with the LAO said they could not comment on HR matters but did pass along a set of rules covering LAO staff under the Consolidated Members’ Services Committee Orders.

Under the rules, staff can’t participate in partisan activities, including soliciting money or votes for a candidate or party, soliciting memberships, distribution or displaying of materials with party logos, and “activities that relate to the internal administration, organization, conventions, meetings or communications of a political party or constituency association.”

Kieran Leavitt is an Edmonton-based reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @kieranleavitt

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