Danielle Smith says she won’t discuss investigation by Alberta ethics commissioner

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 won’t discuss an ethics investigation launched against her or confirm what it’s about.

Smith told reporters she wants to respect the process and that it would be wrong to comment during an active investigation by ethics commissioner Marguerite Trussler.

“I welcome the ethics commissioner’s investigation. It would be inappropriate, though, of me to talk about the details of that,” Smith said at a United Conservative Party pre-election campaign announcement in Sherwood Park, Alta., on Tuesday.

“I’m going to let her do the work and I’m fully co-operating with her investigation.”

Smith’s office announced Monday in a statement that she is under investigation over concerns she interfered in the administration of justice regarding a court case involving charges related to COVID-19.

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However, her office did not specify which case and Trussler, by law, is severely restricted through confidentiality rules from commenting on cases or confirming whether a specific investigation has been launched.

In response to questions Tuesday, Trussler’s office referred reporters to a March 31 letter written to her office from Opposition NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir.

Sabir’s letter urges Trussler to investigate a phone call Smith had in early January with Calgary street pastor Artur Pawlowski about his upcoming criminal case. He faces charges related to a protest last year at the Canada-United States border crossing at Coutts, Alta., over COVID-19 rules.

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

Sabir said it’s clear from the call that Smith breached 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.

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Smith is heard on the call talking about Pawlowski’s case, detailing internal Crown disputes with him over how the cases are being handled, and offering to make inquiries on his behalf and report back.

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The NDP and legal experts say regardless of the Trussler investigation, Smith has clearly violated the firewall separating politicians from individual court cases.

Sabir said Smith needs to explain to Albertans what else is going on, given she has stated that she had other conversations with people facing COVID-19 charges. Smith has declined to specify if the conversations happened during her time as premier.

“This allegation is a serious one, that the premier interfered in the justice system,” said Sabir in an interview.

“What was her role? How many cases did she interfere in?

“In a democratic system, elected representatives are accountable to those who elected them.”

Smith has faced questions over her involvement in COVID-19 court cases since she said in mid-January that she was checking with justice officials to remind them the cases must be winnable and in the public interest to pursue.

The controversy flared up anew two weeks ago when the NDP played a leaked phone call between Smith and Pawlowski about his case.

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For the past week, Smith has declined to answer questions about the issue — citing the integrity of the ethics probe and a possible defamation suit she is contemplating against the CBC over its coverage.

However, during that same time frame, Smith answered questions about it.

Last Thursday, she told reporters that while politicians should not be contacting the accused before trial, her call to Pawlowski was OK because as a politician she has a responsibility to listen and act on concerns from the public.

After that response raised questions of whether there are different rules and a double standard for Smith, the premier told her Saturday Corus radio show audience that thought she would be talking to Pawlowski in his role as a fellow political party leader, suggesting she had not expected to discuss his trial.

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Legal experts say regardless of the pretext, Smith should have ended the conversation when his case came up.

When asked Tuesday why she was selectively choosing when to talk and not talk, Smith declined to comment.

“Look, the advice that I have been given is that we’ve got to let the ethics commissioner process play out.”

The case will soon be set against the backdrop of a provincial election campaign, with the writ drop set for May 1 and polling day on May 29.

Political scientist Lori Williams said the controversy raises larger questions about Smith’s leadership that will be magnified in the heat of an election campaign.

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“(There’s the issue of) competence: does (Smith) actually know how the system works? And integrity: is she going to tell the truth about things? Those are the big ones that are in play here,” said Williams, with Mount Royal University in Calgary.

“All of those are being hit by the continued questions that will be asked at the doors, in debate, in news conferences and so forth.”

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