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A bizarre middle-of-the night visit to a homeless shelter by Alberta Premier Ralph Klein brought an onslaught of criticism yesterday.

After a private dinner that included alcohol, Mr. Klein made a surprise visit to the shelter in downtown Edmonton about 1 a.m. Wednesday and encountered several men in the lobby.

Staff at the Herb Jamieson Centre said a shouting match broke out when Mr. Klein asked the men why they didn't have jobs. After a few minutes, the Premier gave the men money and left at the urging of the workers and his bodyguard. An entry in the shelter's logbook says Mr. Klein was swearing and threw the money on the floor.

"[He]went there and had been drinking and got into a lively discussion and told them to get a job, and of course that would get people riled up," said Bruce Reith, director of the Hope Mission, which runs the provincially financed shelter.

Mr. Klein offered a different version of events.

He told an Edmonton newspaper in a story published yesterday that he asked his bodyguard to drop by the centre to chat with homeless people about their situations and simply asked the men whether they were employed.

The Premier acknowledged he had been drinking and was argumentative, but said the tone was friendly until one man, who had been sleeping, woke up and became confrontational. He said he left after giving about $70 directly to the men and did not throw the cash on the floor.

Mr. Klein was unavailable yesterday because of an early-morning diagnosis of torn back muscles, an injury he sustained on Wednesday night while competing in a horse race. In a statement, he apologized for "the commotion" he caused.

"I regret that on this occasion, my visit was disruptive, and I intend to send a personal letter of apology to the residents and staff of the centre," he said.

"Earlier in the evening, I had been at a private dinner and had some drinks. I don't deny that, but I want centre residents and all Albertans to know that I will always strive to represent my office and this province with dignity and respect."

Opposition politicians and political observers said Mr. Klein's conduct was inappropriate and showed a remarkable lack of judgment.

David Taras, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, said Mr. Klein's actions are "out of context for a premier."

"It shows remarkable insensitivity to the plight of people," he said. "These are people who need a helping hand, not a kick in the teeth."

Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Mount Royal College in Calgary, said the incident raises questions about whether Mr. Klein's use of alcohol is affecting his political performance. But he added that Albertans are unlikely to turn against him.

Peter Elzinga, Mr. Klein's top aide, said the shelter visit was "out of the goodness of his heart" and said his use of alcohol is not an issue.

This is not the first time Mr. Klein has run into controversy about his drinking.

In the 1992 Tory leadership race, a rival candidate characterized him as a glad-hander coming from the "booze camp."

In 1995, after he cancelled a morning meeting with Clyde Wells, then Newfoundland premier, he admitted he sometimes skips early meetings because he is hungover.

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