Citizen group argues public inquiry appointment posed conflict of interest for Alberta justice minister

A 2019 file photo of Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer. Global News

Questions are being formally raised about the how the commissioner appointed to an already contentious public inquiry in Alberta was selected, and whether conflict-of-interest rules were broken through his hiring.

On Wednesday, Democracy Watch, which describes itself as a non-profit citizen group, said it has sent a letter to Alberta Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler.

The letter, the group says, asked her to look into whether the appointment of the commissioner of the inquiry investigating how environmental groups are funded amounts to a conflict of interest for Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer.

READ MORE: Ecojustice lawsuit seeks to quash Alberta inquiry into oil and gas foes

“Democracy Watch is asking the ethics commissioner to investigate and to rule on Minister of Doug Schweitzer’s appointment of Steve Allan to head up the inquiry into foreign funding of environmental groups,” Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher told Global News in a phone interview on Wednesday.

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“We’re doing that because Steve Allan campaigned for Doug Schweitzer’s election and [we] think that causes a conflict of interest because it means that Minister Schweitzer should not have participated in the decision to appoint his associate, Steve Allan.”

The letter to Trussler notes that Allan donated $1,000 to Schweitzer’s campaign in the 2017 UCP leadership race.

It also cites a CBC report that says Allan sent an email to “several associates” in April 2019, urging them to vote for Schweitzer and one that noted “if the UCP wins, there is an excellent chance Doug will be in cabinet.”

The letter also cites the report saying Allan participated in the invitation for a nomination race campaign event for Schweitzer in July 2018, “which was distributed to invitees by Schweitzer’s assistant at Dentons law firm, where he was a lawyer at the time.”

When asked for comment on Democracy Watch sending the letter to Trussler, a spokesperson for Alberta’s justice minister told Global News via email that “all Albertans have the right to donate to political parties and support political candidates [and] this does not preclude them from serving their province at a later time.”

“Mr. Allan is a highly-regarded professional forensic accountant with over 40 years of experience,” Jonah Mozeson wrote. “That is why he was appointed.

“It’s frankly ridiculous to suggest that donating one-fourth of the maximum allowable amount [to Schweitzer’s UCP leadership campaign] over two years ago, or volunteering during a nomination campaign somehow secures an appointment… Mr. Allan was chosen solely based on his professional experience.”
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When asked specifically about the allegation that Allan emailed associates urging them to vote for Schweitzer in the provincial election, Mozeson neither confirmed nor denied the claim.

Conacher said there is past precedent for why Democracy Watch is expressing concern about Schweitzer’s role in Allan’s appointment.

“The Federal Court of Appeal have considered where the line is and essentially, anything where there is any sense of obligation to return a favour created by what the person’s done for you, then the line is crossed,” Conacher said. “Democracy Watch’s opinion is that line was crossed because Steve Allan not only donated directly to Schweitzer’s campaign for leadership of the UCP, but he also helped host a campaign event for him, sent out an email to dozens of associates urging them to vote for him.

“Donations are legal — by being legal they do not create a conflict of interest — but Steve Allan’s actions went beyond that and I think the conflict of interest was created and Minister Schweitzer should have stepped aside and said, ‘I can’t consider Steve Allan for this position of heading up this inquiry because he did me a favour before, so obviously it would appear to be me returning the favour to him by handing him this $290,000 contract.'”

Conacher said he believes the concern over Schweitzer’s participation in the decision to appoint Allan is similar to situations that have played out at the federal level and in Ontario and B.C.

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Conacher added that the rules make it clear “you can’t be appointing your family members, your friends or people who do favours for you.”

However, Conacher noted that minister can hire whomever they like for their own staff, including people who worked on their campaign.

“Even though the public pays for those people, there’s a recognition that the minister… wants people that are completely loyal to them and close to them because they are the staff of the minister and play that central role of advising the minister,” he said.

“But beyond that, the public’s money can’t be used to be rewarding friends and people who have campaigned and helped you get elected. Ministers are required to act in the public interest… with integrity and be impartial”

Mozeson’s statement said “it would be ridiculous to suggest that being politically involved in any way creates a blanket disqualification to serving one’s province at a later time.”

“I would be interested to know if so-called Democracy Watch has also filed complaints against the Alberta NDP for appointing donors to very important positions, including six to the Provincial Court of Alberta — permanent roles that last until the age of 75,” Mozeson added.

Global News has reached out to Allan for comment via the media relations email associated with the inquiry he is heading.

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Conacher said Trussler’s office has confirmed it has received his group’s letter.

Democracy Watch’s letter to Trussler is not the first time concerns related to the inquiry headed by Allan have been raised.

READ MORE: NDP questions sole-source contract linked to Alberta public inquiry

Last month, NDP MLA Heather Sweet said she would like Alberta’s ethics commissioner to review a sole-source contract given to Dentons by the public inquiry, noting that Allan’s son is a partner at the law firm.

The UCP government said it had been advised there was no indication of any conflict of interest and that the justice department would apply all relevant government rules before paying any expenses.

At the time, Mozeson said Allan’s works in a different department at Dentons and isn’t involved in any way with the inquiry.

Watch below: (From Nov. 15, 2019) Questions continue to swirl around a provincial inquiry into how environmental groups that are opposed to Alberta’s oil sector are being funded. Tom Vernon has the latest.

Click to play video: 'Questions continue to swirl around Alberta inquiry into funding of environmental groups'
Questions continue to swirl around Alberta inquiry into funding of environmental groups

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