Alberta ethics commissioner reviewing if Premier Danielle Smith interfered in justice

Click to play video: 'Premier Danielle Smith under ethics commissioner investigation'
Premier Danielle Smith under ethics commissioner investigation
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is in the hot seat again - facing an investigation by the ethics commissioner. The NDP had previously called for this, alleging Smith abused her office. Sarah Ryan reports – Apr 10, 2023

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says she is under investigation by the province’s ethics commissioner into whether she interfered in the administration of justice in relation to a COVID-19 prosecution.

It’s the second third-party investigation of the United Conservative Party government in just over a year relating to allegations of judicial interference. It also comes three weeks before an expected writ drop for the May 29 provincial election.

“The premier welcomes this investigation, is fully co-operating with the commissioner, and is confident this examination will confirm there has been no such interference,” Smith’s office said in a statement Monday.

READ MORE: Alberta premier says politicians cannot talk to accused, but her call was OK

“As a result of the ongoing investigation, it would be inappropriate for the premier to comment on this further until the investigation is completed.”

Story continues below advertisement
Click to play video: 'Premier Smith under investigation by ethics commissioner'
Premier Smith under investigation by ethics commissioner

The office of ethics commissioner Marguerite Trussler did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, it operates within tight constraints on public disclosure under the Conflicts of Interest Act, including not being allowed to disclose whether an investigation has been launched.

Smith has faced renewed accusations of interference since a leaked phone call was released almost two weeks ago in which Smith is heard discussing an active criminal case with the accused, Calgary street pastor Art Pawlowski.

Pawlowski is heard on the call expressing concerns about his case and accusing the Crown prosecutor of unfair late-day “document dump” tactics aimed at foiling his ability to mount a defence of charges he faces related to a COVID-19 protest at the Canada-United States border crossing at Coutts, Alta., in 2022.

Click to play video: 'Alberta premier fires back at allegations of judicial interference, threatens legal action'
Alberta premier fires back at allegations of judicial interference, threatens legal action

Smith is heard telling Pawlowski she can’t intervene directly in the case but also tells him that she is questioning justice officials “almost weekly” about such cases.

Story continues below advertisement

She also shares details of an internal disagreement over Crown case strategy, is heard promising to make inquiries on Pawlowski’s behalf and report back to him, while also telling him the charges against him were politically motivated.

The 11-minute call is believed to have occurred in early January.

READ MORE: Danielle Smith changes story on controversial phone call with Pawlowski

It was leaked to the Opposition New Democrats. NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir played the recording for reporters March 29.

Smith has since defended the call, saying while politicians are not free to contact criminal accused about active cases, her call to Pawlowski was OK because it’s her job as an elected official to listen and act on concerns from the public.

On Saturday, Smith offered up a new version of the call.

She told her Corus radio call-in show on Saturday that she thought she would be talking to Pawlowski in his role as then-leader of another political party, suggesting she had not expected him to bring up his court case.

Click to play video: 'Alberta premier faces fresh accusations of judicial interference'
Alberta premier faces fresh accusations of judicial interference

Legal experts have said the call was a clear violation of the firewall between politicians and the justice system and, regardless of the pretext, Smith should have ended the conversation when the case came up.

Story continues below advertisement

Political scientist Duane Bratt said the UCP now faces the possibility of a third-party investigation hanging over the premier and party during an election campaign when polling already suggests there are trust issues with Smith.

“An ethics investigation is, I think, appropriate. This is a major step forward,” said Bratt, with Mount Royal University in Calgary.

Calgary-based pollster Janet Brown said the controversy has dominated headlines to the detriment of the UCP for close to two weeks, but the impact on voters isn’t clear.

Click to play video: 'Alberta premier heard on call with COVID-19 protester Artur Pawlowski'
Alberta premier heard on call with COVID-19 protester Artur Pawlowski

“Although it’s a big deal that the ethics commissioner is investigating this, on the other hand, I don’t know that it provides a lot of new information to Albertans or that it’s going to be very effective at changing people’s minds,” Brown said.

She said, however, it’s uncharted territory.

Story continues below advertisement

“What is the precedent of having an election while the ethics commissioner is investigating the premier?”

READ MORE: Timeline of Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and controversy over COVID court cases

University of Calgary political science professor Lisa Young said the issue is likely to follow the premier through the spring election campaign.

“If this was a strategy designed to take the issue off the table and not make it a political concern for the premier, it may backfire if it allows the opposition to keep advertising and pushing the point that the premier is under investigation,” Young told Global News.

“It certainly allows the opposition to say that the premier is under investigation, which sounds like it’s very serious, even though when we look at the powers of the ethics commissioner, it isn’t necessarily.

“So it’s really hard to know how it’s going to land, particularly with those undecided voters.”

Story continues below advertisement

The NDP has called for an expedited independent investigation into Smith’s involvement with Pawlowski’s case and with other COVID-19 cases before the courts.

On March 31, Sabir sent a letter to Trussler asking for an investigation into the Pawlowski call, accusing Smith of breaching the provision of the Conflicts of Interest Act that forbids a legislature member from using their powers to further the private interests of an individual.

Sabir said Monday the New Democrats have not heard from Trussler’s office about whether it’s their complaint she’s acting on.

“The premier’s actions are a clear violation of the rule of law and she must be held accountable for that,” Sabir said.

Trussler’s investigation comes just over a year after Smith’s deputy premier, Kaycee Madu, was moved out of the justice portfolio by former premier Jason Kenney. A third-party report by a retired judge determined Madu tried to interfere in the administration of justice by calling up Edmonton’s police chief to complain about a traffic ticket.

READ MORE: Kenney strips Alberta justice minister of duties, orders probe into call to police chief over traffic ticket

Madu was given a new portfolio under Kenney, then promoted to deputy premier when Smith won the party leadership and became premier in October.

Two weeks ago, Madu defended Smith’s phone call. He said as long as the premier is working for the greater good of Alberta, she can speak with whomever she wishes.

Story continues below advertisement

Pawlowski is a controversial figure in Alberta for his high-profile, disruptive demonstrations against the LGBTQ community and COVID-19 health rules.

He went on trial in February, charged with breaching a release order and mischief for allegedly inciting people to block public property at the Coutts border crossing. He is also charged under the Alberta Critical Infrastructure Defence Act with wilfully damaging or destroying essential infrastructure.

The trial has ended but the judge has yet to render a verdict.

The fringe Alberta Independence party announced it was parting ways with Pawlowski as leader late last month, saying their values no longer aligned.

–With files from Adam Toy, Global News and The Canadian Press’ Colette Derworiz

Click to play video: 'Danielle Smith changes story on controversial phone call with Pawlowski'
Danielle Smith changes story on controversial phone call with Pawlowski

Sponsored content