Alberta’s ethics commissioner is investigating Premier Danielle Smith over whether she interfered with the administration of justice related to a COVID-19 prosecution, according to her office.
The independent third-party investigation has been launched less than two months before Albertans are expected to head to the polls on May 29 in a hotly contested general election, but the commissioner’s inquiry may not be completed before the next government takes office.
While the specifics of the investigation are unknown, Ms. Smith has been facing allegations of interfering in a prosecution for months, which were renewed after a leaked phone conversation captured her speaking to a street preacher facing criminal charges connected to the Coutts border blockade.
During the phone call with Artur Pawlowski, believed to have taken place in January, Ms. Smith said she had contacted Crown prosecutors “almost weekly” about cases similar to his. The Premier has since repeatedly denied that she or anyone in her office has actually spoken directly with prosecutors and has said she used “imprecise” language and meant justice ministry officials.
The Premier’s office, in a statement released Monday, said Ms. Smith welcomes the investigation and is fully co-operating with Commissioner Marguerite Trussler. It said the Premier “is confident this examination will confirm there has been no such interference.”
Investigations by the ethics commissioner typically take between six and eight weeks, but in more complex cases can take up to five months. The office must report the findings of the investigation to the legislative assembly and can recommend that a member be sanctioned.
However, it has no direct power to do so itself.
Rebecca Polak, press secretary to Ms. Smith, said no further information will be provided until the investigation concludes.
The Office of the Ethics Commissioner did not respond to a request for comment, but is bound by tight constraints on public disclosure under the Conflicts of Interest Act. It cannot divulge whether an investigation has been launched or the outcome of any such investigation.
Ms. Smith has defended her conversation with Mr. Pawlowski by saying it is a politicians’ role to hear concerns from a range of Albertans, while also stating that politicians are not free to contact people who are criminally accused while their cases are active.
Then, during her weekly call-in radio show on Saturday, Ms. Smith provided a new explanation for her call with Mr. Pawlowski, who until recently was leader of the Independence Party of Alberta.
“I thought we were talking in the context of him being a political party leader,” she said. “It turned into a discussion about what I was doing with COVID amnesty.”
Mr. Pawlowski has long been a controversial figure in Calgary, whose profile grew during the pandemic as a vocal critic of COVID-19 public health measures.
On Saturday, Ms. Smith said: “I understand the concern that people have. Obviously, Mr. Pawlowski holds some very extreme views that I do disagree with completely.”
Legal experts have said the call was a clear violation of the firewall between politicians and the justice system and, regardless of the pretext, Ms. Smith should have ended the conversation when the case came up. However, pollster Janet Brown said the impact on voters is not yet 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,” Ms. Brown said, noting it is uncharted territory.
“What is the precedent of having an election while the ethics commissioner is investigating the Premier?”
On March 31, New Democratic Party justice critic Irfan Sabir sent a letter to the ethics commissioner asking for an investigation into Ms. Smith’s actions. On Monday, Mr. Sabir said he welcomes the investigation but said it does not go far enough. He called again for a fully independent judicial inquiry.
“Only a judge could look at breaches of other legislation and could conduct interviews concerning matters not covered in the Conflict of Interest Act,” he told media. “At stake is the independence of our judicial system. At stake is our democracy.”
With a report from The Canadian Press