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opinion

Two years ago, Stockwell Day wrote a nasty letter that was published in The Red Deer Advocate in Alberta. Now that a settlement has been reached in the resulting defamation suit, pulling the plug on a trial set to begin Jan. 15, the letter is turning out to be very expensive for Alberta's taxpayers.

Yet a confidentiality agreement prevents those taxpayers from knowing how many hundreds of thousands of dollars they are expected to shell out, and no one has gone to court to determine whether, in fact, it is right to stick them with Mr. Day's liabilities.

The trouble began after a man was convicted in Red Deer of attempted sexual assault and possession of child pornography. His lawyer, Lorne Goddard, had argued on his client's behalf that the law on child pornography was unconstitutional. Before the client had even been sentenced, Mr. Day, who at the time was Alberta's treasurer and Red Deer North's MLA, wrote an outraged letter in which he inexcusably blurred the line between a lawyer's personal beliefs and his duty to present the best defence for his client. Mr. Goddard brought a $600,000 suit against Mr. Day for defamation.

Unable under Alberta's Conflict of Interest Act to raise public money for his defence, Mr. Day asked Justice Minister David Hancock whether there was an insurance fund covering MLAs. Sure enough, there was; in fact, Mr. Day's department administered it. The Alberta Risk Management Fund, an insurance program for public employees who are sued while acting within the scope of their public duties, had been amended in 1993 to cover members of the legislature.

The government hadn't publicized the fact. When Liberal MLA Howard Sapers faced a defamation suit in 1995, and asked the Speaker's Office whether such a fund existed, he was told it did not. But Mr. Day had better luck, and was successful in his application to have the fund cover his legal expenses and any settlement of the lawsuit. Since the fund has a deductible of $1-million, taxpayers will be on the hook for any amount short of that.

Why? What possible reason is there for Mr. Day to have his expenses covered by the public purse? When he wrote the letter, he was not acting in his capacity as treasurer, and there appears to be nothing in an MLA's job description that covers maligning a lawyer and interfering in a criminal case before sentence is passed. Indeed, Mr. Day's exercise in spleen-venting prompted Justice Minister Jon Havelock to order MLAs to stop commenting publicly about cases before the courts.

Bob Clark, Alberta's Ethics Commissioner, found in 1999 that the then-treasurer was not in a conflict of interest in asking government employees to approve his coverage by the plan, but said there should be changes to "ensure independence and transparency" for MLAs' applications. At the very least, the Alberta government should now, as the Opposition has urged, ask the courts whether Mr. Day's letter qualified him for coverage by the fund.

If it turns out the public must pay the bill, the settlement should be made public. Taxpayers should be told just how much Mr. Day's act will cost them. It is understandable that the Alberta government and Mr. Day, who now heads the Canadian Alliance, might not relish that prospect, and that Alliance spokesman Phil von Finckenstein might say, "It's over. It's done." But the interest of public accountability should blast that secrecy with all the force of a letter mauling a reputation.