Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says she will no longer answer questions on allegations that she interfered in unresolved criminal cases after a recording surfaced showing she spoke to a defendant just weeks before his trial. She cited potential legal action against the media as her reason.
Last Wednesday, a video was made public that captured a phone call believed to be in January between the Premier and street preacher Artur Pawlowski, a vocal critic of COVID-19 public health measures who is facing charges for inciting people to block the Alberta-Montana border crossing last winter.
In the recorded call, Ms. Smith told Mr. Pawlowski that she asked prosecutors “almost weekly” about cases like his, and expressed frustration with the justice system and what she called politically motivated COVID-19-related charges. The video prompted allegations that Ms. Smith had interfered in his case and other similar ones.
She refused to comment further on the allegations at a news conference on Monday about an unrelated matter. It was the first time the Premier had faced reporters since the video was released publicly last week.
“As this matter is now likely to be subject of legal defamation proceedings, I will not be commenting about it further as per the advice of counsel,” said Ms. Smith in her opening statement.
The CBC first reported on the video in question.
A letter, provided to The Globe and Mail, was delivered on Sunday to the public broadcaster from lawyer Munaf Mohamed, who is representing Ms. Smith. The “notice of defamation” demands the CBC issue a retraction, correction and apology by April 28, otherwise further legal action may be taken.
Alberta’s general election is expected to take place almost exactly one month later, on May 29. No other media outlet was served with a similar notice.
Chuck Thompson, head of public affairs at CBC, said in a statement that the news organization stands by its journalism and “if necessary, will defend it in court.”
During Monday’s news conference, Ms. Smith faced half a dozen questions regarding her conversation with Mr. Pawlowski and broader concerns about political interference. She repeated a version of the same response on each occasion.
“The advice that I received from my justice officials was that there were matters that were before the courts and, until those were resolved, there could be no further action,” she said. “I have always said that I need to stay in my legal lane.”
During Ms. Smith’s successful run for United Conservative Party leader last fall, she campaigned to seek amnesty for people facing pandemic-related charges and, after becoming Premier, said she raised such cases with prosecutors. She later denied doing so and said she used “imprecise” language and meant justice ministry officials.
In January, the CBC published a story that alleged a member of Ms. Smith’s staff sent e-mails to the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, challenging prosecutors’ assessment and direction on cases tied to the border blockade in Coutts, Alta. For months, she has denied any wrongdoing.
The prosecution service has said there was no direct contact with Ms. Smith or her staff. Alberta Justice also conducted a four-month search of all e-mails – sent, received and deleted – between the Premier’s office and prosecutors, said the notice to CBC, but there remains few details on the scope of that search.
It was the Premier who first disclosed the conversation with Mr. Pawlowski during a Feb. 9 news conference. Mr. Pawlowski, who until recently led the Independence Party of Alberta, was the first person charged under Alberta’s Critical Infrastructure Defence Act.
The Opposition New Democratic Party has called for an independent investigation into the allegations and has sent a letter to the Ethics Commissioner of Alberta under the Conflicts of Interest Act.
NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir said on Monday that Ms. Smith should not be able to “hide” behind potential lawsuits and owes Albertans a proper explanation.
“I’m shocked that she will go at length to duck responsibility,” he said. “If the Premier, and anyone in the UCP have any regard for the rule of law, have any respect for our independent judicial system, they should have called for investigation by now.”
With a report from Carrie Tait