“If anything warrants a Mueller committee-style investigation, it’s certainly this.”
This was Danielle Smith, the radio talk-show host and pundit, in 2019. She was speaking about The Globe and Mail scoop that the Prime Minister’s Office pressed Jody Wilson-Raybould – when she was justice minister – to intervene in the corruption and fraud prosecution of Montreal engineering and construction giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.
Ms. Smith, who would go on to follow every twist and turn of that Liberal government scandal, declared in the hours after the story broke that it was “a big deal.” She added that it was serious enough that Justin Trudeau, who immediately denied that he or anyone in his office had directed Ms. Wilson-Raybould to do anything, felt the need to respond right away.
Now, four years later, Danielle Smith the Premier faces a similar quagmire. A CBC story Thursday citing unnamed sources alleges that a staffer in Ms. Smith’s office sent e-mails to the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, challenging prosecutors’ actions on Coutts border blockades and protest cases.
The seriousness of the allegation, that there was political pressure exerted on prosecutors, now warrants accountability from her office. She has derived much of her political support from being a staunch advocate for those opposing COVID-19 health restrictions. But the cornerstone of our justice system is that politicians can’t use it to go after their enemies, or protect their friends. The Premier needs an investigation, or to clarify exactly what did and did not happen, and quick.
On Friday, her office released a statement that said the Premier has not been in contact with Crown prosecutors and has no knowledge of anyone on her staff having done so. “This is a serious allegation. If a staff person has been in touch with a Crown prosecutor, appropriate action will be taken,” it 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.”
A spokesperson for the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service said in a e-mail that neither the assistant deputy minister nor the Crown prosecutor involved in the Coutts files have any recollection of receiving any e-mails from the Premier’s office.
These carefully worded statements don’t end the story. It’s especially key that the Premier clear the air considering her recent strange remarks about discussions with justice officials, some of which are now characterized as misstatements by her office.
In December, she told Rebel News that she believes the public is no longer onside with COVID-19 prosecutions, and Crown lawyers should consider that point – along with the fact such cases were failing in court – when they make future decisions.
“I’ve put it to the prosecutors, and I have asked them to do a review of the [COVID-19] cases with those two things in mind, and I’m hopeful that we’ll see a true turning of the page.”
Then this month, Ms. Smith said she had asked Crown prosecutors about charges related to COVID-19 health violations. “We do have an independent Justice Department and independent Crown prosecutors, and I have asked them to consider all charges under the lens of ‘is it in the public interest to pursue?’ ”
“I ask them on a regular basis, as new cases come out, is it in the public interest to pursue and is there a reasonable likelihood of conviction?”
After that, her office issued a statement saying she used “imprecise” language in those two instances when she said she had contacted Crown prosecutors, and had not. The statement said she went to a meeting with Justice Minister and Attorney-General Tyler Shandro, and his deputy attorney-general, seeking “options” on the COVID-19 prosecutions.
This past weekend, Ms. Smith told her Corus radio show that she has urged Mr. Shandro and his deputy to consider whether the cases were in the public interest and whether there was a reasonable chance of conviction before proceeding.
“Of course, I’ve never called a Crown prosecutor. You’re not allowed to do that as a politician. Everyone knows that,” Ms. Smith said on the Saturday broadcast.
Ms. Smith and her staff should all know that. But now, the Alberta NDP is calling on Ms. Smith to appear in public, identify who in her office has sent these e-mails and confirm that the person has been dismissed. The opposition party, which will face Ms. Smith’s UCP in a May provincial election, is also calling for the Attorney-General to launch an independent investigation.
The fallout from the SNC-Lavalin affair is well-documented. Eleven days after The Globe first reported the story, Mr. Trudeau’s close friend and trusted adviser Gerald Butts resigned as principal secretary. House of Commons committees on the issue became public spectacles. Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion eventually said the Prime Minister undermined the authority of Ms. Wilson-Raybould and “directed his staff to find a solution that would safeguard SNC-Lavalin’s business interests in Canada.”
As a radio talk-show host and commentator, Ms. Smith talked at the time about being fascinated with who was telling the truth, and the “constant leaks and constant changing of information” over the days and weeks that the SNC-Lavalin Group affair played out.
We’re only at the beginning of a potential scandal, but the Premier should not drag out an inevitable investigation and needs to provide a more detailed account of what happened. There’s nothing certain at this point, except that the questions will continue.