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 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 recorded phone call was leaked almost two weeks ago in which she is heard discussing an active criminal case with the accused, Calgary street pastor Artur Pawlowski.
Pawlowski is heard on the call expressing concerns about his case and accusing the Crown prosecutor of a late-day “document dump” aimed at foiling his ability to mount a defence against his charges 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 his case but 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 happened 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 those criminally accused about active cases, her call with 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 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.
Political scientist Duane Bratt said the UCP now faces the possibility of an investigation hanging over the premier and party during an election campaign, when polling 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 effect on voters isn’t clear.
“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.”
She said, however, it’s uncharted territory.
“What is the precedent of having an election while the ethics commissioner is investigating the premier?”
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.
Madu was given a new portfolio under Kenney, then promoted to deputy premier when Smith won the party leadership and became premier in October.
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