Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, facing allegations contained in a media report that someone on her staff e-mailed the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service about cases tied to the U.S.-Canada border blockade last year, said on Friday that she is unaware of any employees contacting prosecutors.
The Premier’s office ignored questions about whether it would conduct an investigation into the situation.
“Premier Smith has not been in contact with Crown prosecutors and has no knowledge of anyone on her staff having done so,” her office said in a statement. “This is a serious allegation. If a staff person has been in touch with a Crown prosecutor, appropriate action will be taken.”
The CBC, citing unnamed sources, on Thursday reported that someone in the Premier’s office sent a series of e-mails to the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service in the fall of 2022. The correspondence, according to the CBC, challenged the prosecutors’ assessment and direction of the cases related to the border blockade near Coutts, Alta., which sprang up in protest of public-health restrictions tied to the coronavirus. The CBC said it has not viewed the e-mails; it did not quote from the correspondence.
The news organization did not say who sent or received the e-mails. It did not say the staff member e-mailed Crown prosecutors, but instead said the employee contacted the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service.
Ms. Smith’s office did not respond to questions about investigating whether a staff member was in contact with the prosecution service or prosecutors. Justice Minister Tyler Shandro’s office did not respond to messages seeking comment.
“The Alberta Crown Prosecution Service operates independently of government and political interests. Crown prosecutors base their decisions on the law and merits of the matter before them,” Ms. Smith’s office said. “They will continue to use their own discretion in making decisions for each individual case without political interference. Without additional information, we cannot confirm whether direct contact into the Prosecutor’s Office occurred.”
Alberta New Democratic MLA Rakhi Pancholi, who is also trained as a lawyer, on Friday renewed calls for an independent investigation into the allegations of political interference in continuing criminal prosecutions. She called on Ms. Smith to appear publicly to identify and terminate whoever sent the purported e-mails.
“Allowing this chaos to stand will cause profound damage to the rule of law in Alberta and our reputation around the world as a stable and mature democracy,” she told reporters. “The public must have confidence that prosecutions are not influenced by whether the accused have friends in the premier’s office.”
Ms. Pancholi said it is irrelevant if the e-mail was sent by a member of Ms. Smith’s staff or the Premier herself because a prosecutor would “rightfully assume” it is done with the authority, knowledge and influence of the Premier.
“But let’s also be clear that if the Premier doesn’t know what key members of her staff are doing, there’s another problem going on,” she said.
Michelle Davio, spokesperson for the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, said in a statement that Kim Goddard, assistant deputy minister of the service, and Crown prosecutor Steven Johnston, assigned to the Coutts cases, do not have any recollection of receiving any e-mails from the Premier’s office.
“Such communication would be exceptionally rare and as such, would stand out,” said Ms. Davio. “However, without seeing the e-mails in question, no further comment can be provided.”
Ms. Smith created controversy with recent statements about the degree to which she has involved herself in prosecutions tied to COVID-19 violations and protests. In a series of conflicting statements and interviews, she has said that she talked to prosecutors directly and did not talk to prosecutors directly. She said she has reminded justice officials of general prosecution guidelines but also reminded them to consider factors unique to the COVID-19 cases. She has suggested the conversations are continuing and suggested they have ended.
Shortly after becoming Premier in October, she promised to seek amnesties and pardons for COVID-19 rule violators but recently said she won’t, noting that premiers do not have the authority.
Lisa Silver, an associate professor in the University of Calgary’s faculty of law, said the allegations in the CBC story raise concerns about political inference and prosecutorial discretion. She said that whether or not there has been improper influence, the perception of such is enough to erode public confidence in the justice system.
As a former criminal defence lawyer, Prof. Silver said the severity of these allegations should not be played down. If those e-mails were sent, they threaten Charter-protected rights to fundamental justice, which are the basic principles that underline notions of a fair and just process.
“We want matters to be adjudicated through the courts impartially, fairly before independent, impartial tribunals by people who are not doing things to advance their own interests or a political party’s interests,” she said. “That is what we expect in a free and democratic society.”
Prof. Silver said there needs to be a review of what happened and public accountability for the events that transpired. She added that the situation also makes it difficult for Crown prosecutors to do their job, as it unfairly raises suspicions about their professionalism.
This is not the first time the UCP has answered to these types of allegations. Last year, Kaycee Madu, who now serves as deputy premier under Ms. Smith, was shuffled out of his position as justice minister under former premier Jason Kenney. An investigation found that he attempted to interfere with the administration of justice by calling Edmonton’s police chief after receiving a ticket for distracted driving.
Dallas Sopko, president of the Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association, declined to comment on Friday, standing by the association’s prior statement. That statement, released a week ago, said the association was unaware of any contact between an elected official and Crown prosecutor regarding specific cases.
“The Alberta Crown Prosecution Service’s code of conduct emphasizes the importance of Crown prosecutors being able to, and being directed to, perform their duties independent of political or other improper external influences,” said the statement.
With reports from The Canadian Press