Smith responds to allegations staff member emailed Alberta Crown Prosecution Service over Coutts blockade

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Smith responds to allegations staff member emailed Crown Prosecutors over Coutts blockade
Premier Danielle Smith issued a statment but did not publicly address if her office contacted Crown prosecutors, following allegations that a staffer reached out on cases stemming from the Coutts blockade. A CBC report said someone working in her office questioned the charges and their characterization of the blockades, and now the NDP says that means someone needs to be fired. Morgan Black reports. – Jan 20, 2023

After a report surfaced Thursday about allegations that a staffer for Premier Danielle Smith emailed the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service to question their judgment on some cases, the premier’s office has issued a statement saying “this is a serious allegation” and “appropriate action will be taken” if the allegations are true.

The CBC reported Thursday that it was told by sources that the relevant emails were sent last fall and mentioned “cases stemming from the Coutts border blockades and protests.”

The CBC has agreed to keep its sources anonymous, saying they fear they could lose their jobs for speaking out. Global News has not seen the emails in question.

Last week, Smith announced she was no longer looking into giving pardons to people found guilty of breaking public health rules related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

READ MORE: Alberta premier says she won’t pursue COVID pardon legislation on advice from justice officials

She said she had been speaking with provincial justice officials about the cases, prompting some to raise concerns she was inappropriately interfering with the justice system.

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Smith later offered different accounts of who she talked to and when about the matter.

Last week, she said, “I ask (Crown attorneys) on a regular basis, as new cases come out: ‘Is it in the public interest to pursue and is there a reasonable likelihood of conviction?'”

At the same time, Smith said at the time she would allow the court process to play out. Later, Smith said she only had discussions with Justice Minister Tyler Shandro and his deputy attorney general about the matter.

“At no time have I communicated with Crown prosecutors,” said Smith in a statement last Friday. “My language may have been imprecise in these instances.”

READ MORE: Alberta NDP: ‘A lot of lying going on’ about premier’s role in COVID-19 prosecutions

In a statement earlier this week, Justice Department spokesperson Jason Maloney said, “the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service has confirmed that the premier has never spoken with any Crown prosecutors about any court/legal matters that they deal with. No further action is therefore required.”

Global News reached out to Smith’s office on Thursday for comment on the CBC report.

“Premier Smith has not been in contact with Crown prosecutors and has no knowledge of anyone on her staff having done so,” a statement from her office reads. “This is a serious allegation. If a staff member has been in touch with a Crown prosecutor, appropriate action will be taken.

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“The Alberta Crown Prosecution Service operates independently of government and political interests. Crown prosecutors base their decisions on the law and merits of the matter before them. They will continue to use their own discretion in making decisions for each individual case without political interference.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta NDP calls for judicial interference investigation after Premier Smith comments'
Alberta NDP calls for judicial interference investigation after Premier Smith comments

When asked for comment, Alberta Crown Prosecution Service spokesperson Michelle Davio told Global News that “neither the assistant deputy minister of the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service nor the Crown prosecutor involved in the Coutts files have any recollection of receiving any emails from the premier’s office.”

“Such communication would be exceptionally rare and as such, would stand out,” Davio added. “However, without seeing the emails in question, no further comment can be provided.”

On Friday, Global News reached out to Shandro’s office for comment. As of 3 p.m., a response had yet to be received.

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At a news conference in Edmonton on Friday, Opposition MLA Rakhi Pancholi described the concerns raised in the CBC report as “extremely serious allegations.”

“These reports follow a series of reversals, contradictions,” she said, adding that even if Smith was only speaking about plans for pandemic-related prosecutions with Shandro and the deputy attorney general, she believes that may constitute “political interference” in the administration of justice.

NDP MLA MLA Rakhi Pancholi speaks at a news conference in Edmonton on Jan. 20, 2023. Global News

Pancholi also endorsed calls earlier this week from fellow NDP MLA and justice critic Irfan Sabir for an independent investigation into whether Smith inappropriately interfered with the provincial justice system.

Pancholi noted that if allegations that emails were sent from Smith’s office to the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service are proven to be true, she believes “it’s kind of irrelevant whether it was the premier herself or a member of her staff” who sent them.

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“Whoever is receiving that communication… They’re going to assume they’re doing so with the blessing… of the premier,” she said.

“The cases that Smith’s office is now alleged to have interfered in (since Sabir’s call for a probe) are far more serious,” Pancholi added, referencing the criminal charges that were laid as a result of a southern Alberta blockade last year.

In 2022, protesters occupied part of the highway near the Canada-U.S. border at Coutts, Alta., for 18 days in opposition to COVID-19 measures.

READ MORE: 2 charges withdrawn against Alberta woman in Coutts border blockade case

A number of people were arrested and charged in connection with the blockade, including four men who face charges of conspiracy to murder RCMP officers.

Earlier this week, The Canadian Press reported that two charges laid against a woman in connection with the Coutts blockade were dropped: possession of a weapon and mischief causing property damage.

Global News reached out to the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service for details on why the charges were dropped and to ask if anyone from a senior government official’s office contacted the service about the case. In a statement responding to the request for comment, the service did not answer.

“As matters for the co-accused persons remain before the courts in this matter, it would not be appropriate to comment,” the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service said in an email.

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Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University, suggested the allegations made in Thursday’s CBC report were serious ones that need to be put in context.

“Now we have reporting that she did not call Crown prosecutors, but (alleging) a staffer… was emailing Crown prosecutors over the Coutts case,” he told Global News on Friday. “And so this in a sense is even worse than the initial allegations of Smith calling Crown prosecutors, because when Smith said it, it was… asking basic questions like, ‘Is this in the public interest? Is there a reasonable chance of conviction?’…

“This involved a major blockade at the border where numerous weapons were seized where there’s very serious charges… (and it was a blockade that) cost the Alberta economy hundreds of millions of dollars, and the staffer is alleged not just to have asked those simple questions but pushed back on the charges — to argue with Crown prosecutors.

“Given the larger context, including earlier this week, the dropping of some of the charges (related to the Coutts blockade)… you wonder… (whether details from Thursday’s CBC report could now create a perception that) political interference is going on.”

Pancholi said she believes “the public must have confidence” that criminal cases are not impacted by senior government officials who may sympathize with their plight or beliefs.

“Allowing this chaos to stand will cause profound damage to the rule of law in Alberta,” she said.

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Bratt added that even if Smith just spoke to Shandro and his deputy attorney general about the matter, he believes “that in itself is wrong.”

He said he believes Thursday’s report raises questions about whether someone needs to investigate whether anything illegal has taken place, and noted it also raises questions about Smith’s credibility given her different statements about her office’s communication with officials within the justice system.

“Even before this came out, Smith was facing a credibility gap,” he said. “Because of the amount of times that she had to issue clarifications over statements she gave publicly.”

Lisa Young, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary, said it will be important for Smith to determine quickly whether someone in her office sent the emails to the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, and if they did, determine who it was.

“She has a relatively small office,” Young noted, adding if Smith confirms someone did send the emails, “she needs to ensure that they are no longer employed in her office.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta premier says no COVID-19 pardons because Canadian system doesn’t work like the U.S.'
Alberta premier says no COVID-19 pardons because Canadian system doesn’t work like the U.S.

Young said she was surprised to learn of the allegations made in the CBC report, but not surprised at the same time.

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“Because we’ve heard over the last couple of weeks from the premier herself that she told people that she had communicated with Crown prosecutors, and then she recanted from that,” she said.

Young said she believes prior to the news report published Thursday, Smith’s broad comments on COVID-19 cases in the justice system left her “in this very strange place where the line hasn’t been crossed, but she has claimed to cross it, and then she stepped back from it.”

“In the handling of the story that came out yesterday, I don’t think she has crossed a line,” Young added. “But I do think that she has a relatively short period of time to respond fully, to indicate that she has discovered who has done this.”

Global News reached out to the Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association for comment on the CBC report published on Thursday. In an emailed response, the ACAA said it stands by a statement it issued last week which said “prosecutorial independence is fundamental to the role of Crown prosecutors.”

“It is a central component of an open and fair justice system in a democratic society. As Crown prosecutors, we are duty-bound to apply a two-part standard throughout every
prosecution: whether there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction, and whether proceeding is in the public interest.”

The organization’s statement said “the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service’s Code of Conduct emphasizes the importance of Crown prosecutors being able to, and being directed to, perform their duties independent of political or other improper external influences.”

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“Our association is not aware of any case where an elected official has attempted to contact a specific Crown prosecutor to inquire about a prosecution. Our members have and will continue to discharge their ethical obligations in accordance with the principles and standards referenced above.”

–With files from Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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