Alberta premier says she’s under ethics investigation related to COVID-19 prosecution

Alberta premier says she's under ethics investigation related to COVID-19 prosecution
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks at the Canada Strong and Free Network in Ottawa on Thursday, March 23, 2023. Smith says she has been contacted by the province's ethics commissioner, who is investigating whether or not she interfered in the administration of justice.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Over the weekend, 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.

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.

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 was expected to comment later Monday.

The Trussler 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.

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.

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.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 10, 2023.

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