Top 5 Stephen Carter scandals
Gondek's former chief of staff can't keep out of trouble
Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek’s notoriously acerbic former chief of staff, Stephen Carter, received a six-figure severance payout when he was fired just after roughly three months on the job, CTV News reported last week.
Carter got canned in February, immediately after CityNews asked Gondek for comment on allegations of bullying and controlling behaviour from Carter at city hall, which he emphatically denies.
But this isn’t Carter’s first publicly-funded payout after a short time on the job. In 2012, he received $130,000 in severance for his six months as chief of staff to then-premier Alison Redford.
During his prolific political career, Carter has also worked for Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and the Alberta Party before its disastrous 2019 campaign, demonstrating a centre-right tilt in his politics. Widely regarded as a gifted political strategist, Carter has nonetheless accumulated a lot of political baggage over the years for vitriolic outbursts at opponents and failed business ventures.
I reached out to Carter for comment about this piece. In response, Carter offered: “Good luck getting your clicks. Don’t get sued for defamation” via Twitter DM. The author thanks him for his calm and level-headed approach to litigation.
Carter is the president of Decide Campaigns, where he’s worked since 2019. “We win campaigns,” reads the opening statement on its about page, which mentions Carter’s work for Nenshi, Gondek and Redford, but not Smith nor the Alberta Party.
He also hosts The Strategists podcast, along with “professional unprofessional strategists” Zain Velji and Corey Hogan, which boasts 636 Patreon subscribers. According to the show’s description, the co-hosts “dissect the news of the day, pass judgment on strategy choices and lift back the curtain on how decisions are made.”
But is Carter in any position to pass judgment? I’ve compiled a list of Carter’s top five scandals to demonstrate the depth of his strategic brilliance.
This information is based on previous reporting by reporters at The Canadian Press, the Calgary Herald, the Globe and Mail, CTV News, CBC News, Global News, CityNews and LiveWire Calgary. These reporters and outlets have my thanks.
5. Mocking Ed Stelmach’s Ukrainian heritage
In November 2009, Carter confessed to a “lapse of judgement” after firing off a tweet that appeared to mock then-premier Ed Stelmach’s Ukrainian-Canadian accent while Carter was chief of staff to then-leader of opposition Danielle Smith.
"Just saw da premier making a speech. Dat was quite a speech. Dem media better report it right," Carter tweeted in response to Stelmach’s speech to the annual meeting of the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties.
Carter denied his target was Stelmach’s accent, and insisted he was solely ridiculing Stelmach’s relationship with the media, which doesn’t explain the accent.
"I think it's safe to say that there was a degree of surprise," Stelmach’s spokesperson Tom Olsen, whom you may know now as the CEO of Alberta’s energy war room, said in 2009. "[Stelmach] speaks that way. He is of Ukrainian heritage, so I don't know if it was an attempt to belittle Ukrainians, people of Ukrainian descent, but it certainly was not something that was very well received."
4. Calling the president of the AUMA a liar
When Carter was chief of staff to Redford in February 2012, Alberta Urban Municipalities Association president Linda Sloan, who was also an Edmonton city councillor, accused Redford’s government of sometimes distributing funds to municipalities in a partisan fashion.
In response, Carter said on Feb. 14: “Let’s be clear, Linda Sloan didn’t just criticize the budget, she lied. Maliciously.”
Even Richard Griffith, the municipal affairs minister at the time who called Sloan’s remarks "deliberately inflammatory and erroneous," said Carter’s response was out of line.
Under pressure from Redford, Carter apologized to Sloan the next day for his “inappropriate language,” but as seen above he never deleted the offending tweet.
A Feb. 24 piece in the Herald said Carter hadn’t tweeted in almost two weeks after his apology:
Asked Friday if she’d ordered Carter to stop tweeting, the premier said jauntily, “I didn’t know he had, so I guess I didn’t tell him, did I?”
Later I sent Carter text messages asking him to comment on whether he stopped tweeting voluntarily or under pressure.
The very untypical answer was . . . silence.
3. The Redford payout
To this day, we don’t know precisely why Carter left Redford’s office in April 2012 — just six months into a three-year contract — although The Canadian Press’s Dean Bennett confirmed he was fired.
Reporters had a difficult time getting information on the terms of Carter’s departure, as Bennett reported:
Journalists seeking the severance information were stymied by bureaucrats in Redford's office who refused to release it, arguing it could harm Carter's business interests and be used as fodder by political opponents to smear him. They also argued that releasing the figure would make it harder for the Premier's office to attract high-end talent.
These arguments were dismissed by the province’s privacy commissioner, who ordered the terms of the settlement be released, but Redford’s office initially ignored their request, which Global reported was a result of Carter’s objections.
While pressure on Redford mounted to reveal the figure, which she claimed was out of her control, Carter simply tweeted it out, which he said was a response to Redford’s “demand for openness.”
2. The Gondek payout
Unlike the Redford payout, there was no alleged government interference in revealing the amount of money Carter received after he departed Mayor Gondek’s office. However, the circumstances of his departure remain somewhat mysterious. Just weeks before Carter’s dismissal, right-wing councillors filed workplace complaints against him for bullying, allegations which Carter rejects as “categorically untrue.”
Sources also told CityNews Carter’s behaviour was akin to a “puppetmaster” who allegedly berated councillors in their offices who disagreed with the mayor’s agenda. Councillors Andre Chabot and Sean Chu confirmed to the Calgary Herald that they had filed formal complaints against Carter for his behaviour, while Sonya Sharp told LiveWire Calgary she had too.
However, Carter has his defenders on council, including councillors Raj Dhaliwal, Gian-Carlo Carra, Kourtney Penner and Terry Wong.
“He is a very interesting character on the political landscape,” Carra said. “I know there [are] a lot of feelings about who and what he is, but … I very much enjoyed the hands-on approach he took to building relationships with councillors on behalf of the mayor and her agenda.”
After the news broke on the severance payment, Carter submitted a statement to CTV News. "My severance, in my opinion, was granted for two reasons: to ensure I was not vocal about the unjust nature of my dismissal and to avoid embarrassing litigation," he wrote, adding that he could take legal action if “dispersions about me and my character continue.”
1. Blaming the Dalai Lama
In November 2009, Carter resigned as chief of staff to Wildrose leader Danielle Smith when the event planning company he co-owned went broke. Carter McRae, a ventureco-owned with his wife Heather McRae, went broke in 2009 after losing money hosting the World Water Ski Championship and the Dalai Lama’s visit to Calgary.
The water ski races suffered poor attendance due to rain– an understandable outcome. But how do you lose money on a Dalai Lama appearance?
The Globe reported 15,000 people attended the two-day event at the Saddledome, with ticket prices ranging from $25 to $75. But the revenue from ticket sales wasn’t sufficient to pay vendors.
Carter said he wanted to charge higher prices for tickets, but the Dalai Lama’s people wouldn’t let him.
"I got screwed. And in turn others got screwed," Carter said. "There's lots of people devastated by this. And no one is more sorry or sad than I am. ... I lost an awful lot through this. I know that a lot of my suppliers are on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars, but I added an extra $200,000-plus to my own personal debt."
Carter McRae was unable to pay any of its creditors after defaulting on $568,663.30 in debt, most of which was owed to the University of Calgary for the Dalai Lama event.
By 2011, Carter had moved on to work as campaign manager for Smith’s opponent, PC leader, and then premier, Redford.
Asked by the Globe’s Dawn Walton whether his insolvent debt to the University of Calgary posed a conflict of interest, given the Alberta government’s funding of post-secondary education, Carter said, "No, why would it?"
Carter was making $304,123 as chief of staff, the Globe reported at the time.
Edited by Ximena González
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