A private alcohol retailer is threatening to sue an Ontario union that called for a police investigation into lobbying efforts relating to Premier Doug Ford’s government’s plan to allow beer and wine sales in corner stores.
The threat of legal action from Edmonton-based Alcanna Inc., which hopes to expand its liquor stores into Ontario, comes amid heightened interest in ties between lobbyists and the Ford government.
The Ontario Provincial Police’s anti-rackets branch is reviewing allegations of possible illegal lobbying levelled by former PC Party MPP Randy Hillier, who was kicked out of the party’s caucus in March.
On Monday, the Ford government served notice it is tearing up a deal with the big-brewery-owned Beer Store retail chain to avoid having the province pay hundreds of millions in penalties as it seeks to fulfill a campaign promise to allow sales of beer and wine in convenience stores, big-box retailers and more supermarkets.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), then issued a news release calling for the RCMP to investigate the decision and raised concerns about connections between the Ford government and those who may benefit, including lobbyists.
Alcanna’s lawyer sent a letter to the union demanding that Mr. Thomas retract his comments and apologize, calling the news release defamatory, false and misleading. The company, which operates more than 200 liquor retailers in Alberta, British Columbia and Alaska, said it intends to launch a legal action if that doesn’t happen.
The news release from OPSEU, which represents LCBO employees, noted that lobbyist Melissa Lantsman of Hill+Knowlton Strategies, who headed Mr. Ford’s war room in last year’s election campaign, represents Alcanna.
Hill+Knowlton spokeswoman Sarah Brandon said the company “is in compliance with Ontario lobbying legislation requirements for this and for all clients.”
OPSEU also drew attention to Ken Hughes, a former Alberta cabinet minister appointed to advise the Ontario government on loosening alcohol rules, who was a partner in an Alberta alcohol retailer that was bought by Alcanna. Mr. Hughes, who did not return a request for comment on Friday, has previously said he has not had a stake in the business for about a decade. The union said that Mr. Hughes had endorsed the candidacy of the late Jim Prentice for the leadership of Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives, adding that his widow, Karen Prentice, is a director of Alcanna.
Mr. Thomas said he called on the RCMP to investigate alcohol-related lobbying because of questions about the neutrality of the Ontario Provincial Police after Mr. Ford’s unsuccessful attempt to install his friend, Toronto Police Superintendent Ron Taverner, as commissioner of the OPP.
“I think it stinks to high heaven,” Mr. Thomas said, adding he has no plans to retract his comments or apologize.
Ivana Yelich, a spokeswoman for Mr. Ford, called Mr. Thomas’s complaint “absurd and baseless,” adding: “Anyone can make this kind of call to the police with no evidence or even a hint of wrongdoing.”
In an e-mail, an RCMP spokeswoman said the force generally does not confirm whether investigations are under way unless criminal charges are laid and could therefore not comment.
Finance Minister Vic Fedeli introduced a bill in the legislature last Monday that would terminate the 2015 deal signed by the previous Liberal government with the quasi-monopoly Beer Store, which is primarily owned by the foreign brewing giants behind Labatt, Molson and Sleeman and operates 445 outlets across the province.
Owners of the beer retailer warned it would challenge the move in court, sending a lawyers’ letter warning that ripping up the deal would cause billions of dollars in damages, throwing 7,000 Beer Store employees out of work and result in higher prices for consumers.