Danielle Smith violated conflict of interest rules, but the province’s ethics commissioner found no evidence she contacted Crown prosecutors in connection with a Covid-blockade-related court case.
Alberta’s Ethics Commissioner delivered a report Thursday that reviewed then-Premier Danielle Smith’s conduct surrounding a call with a Calgary street preacher Artur Pawlowski who was charged in connection with the Coutts border blockade.
The review was initiated after complaints were made alleging interference by Smith in Pawlowski’s criminal case. Pawlowski was to appear in court in early February.
The complaints came after an 11-minute video surfaced showing Smith in conversation with Pawlowski, apparently indicating that the Premier had inquired with Crown prosecutors about the legitimacy of the charges.
Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler indicated that there were 54 other requests or support for an investigation after the initial inquiry.
Smith said on several occasions that she’d never spoken directly with Crown attorneys, though it was mentioned in video. The Premier maintained that her contact had come through the Minister of Justice. Later, after published reporting on the call by media outlets suggesting Smith had contacted prosecutors directly, Smith refuted the claims and suggested legal action would be taken.
After interviewing 12 people and reviewing statements from 44 Crown prosecutors working on Covid cases, and from 32 political staffers in the Premier’s office, Trussler reviewed and reported her findings.
“There is no evidence that the Premier ever spoke to any Crown Prosecutor. It would appear that she, unfortunately, used the term inappropriately,” Trussler wrote.
Trussler also found that when the Premier became aware that the call was about charges, the call should have been terminated. Though it was a breach of principle, that matter isn’t covered in the Conflicts of Interest Act.
Finally, Trussler found that the interaction with Minister of Justice Tyler Shandro about the Pawlowski case was a conflict of interest.
Damning, sure… but impact unknown: UCalgary poli sci prof, Lisa Young
University of Calgary political science professor Lisa Young said Trussler’s statement covering the threat to democracy by interfering in the administration of justice was particularly troubling.
“I think this is a damning indictment of Danielle Smith’s behaviour,” Young said.
It’s the latest in a frequent, growing list of political gaffes going back months for Smith. But Young’s not sure if it moves the needle for Alberta voters.
It hasn’t thus far – at least not in the way one might expect. Recent polling has the UCP building a lead across the province, including in Calgary.
“I’m surprised that the accumulation of scandal around the premier hasn’t seemed to have an impact,” Young said.
“It may in this instance, we don’t know. The accumulation might finally be enough, but I guess we then need to try to understand why it doesn’t matter.”
Danielle Smith issued a statement after the report’s release on Thursday.
“I was gratified to read the Ethics Commissioner’s findings confirming that neither I, nor anyone in my office, tried to or did contact any Crown Prosecutors regarding any COVID-19 prosecutions,” the statement read.
Smith goes on to say that it confirms that both the CBC and NDP have “repeatedly lied” about the accusations. Smith’s statement said she will confer with her legal counsel on potential civil litigation in that matter.
She also said that she’s asked for further guidance on advancing sensitive policy issues with the Minister of Justice. Smith said she’s always stated that she wanted to find a path to amnesty for those charged with non-violent Covid-related offences.
Ramifications and recommendations
Young said that there are some Alberta voters who, despite some of these findings – or statements uttered in the past – are not worried about Smith’s behaviour. Others may be concerned, but simply can’t vote NDP.
“The premier may well be re-elected despite all this baggage,” Young said.
Further, Young said if there’s no consequence for Smith’s actions, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be repeated. Still, she said human behaviour paints a broader picture.
“I think what we know about human behaviour is that if someone is able to break a rule or transgress a norm, and not face consequences for doing so, invites them to do it again,” she said.
“Certainly the lesson that a reasonable person would take from this set of circumstances if they’re re-elected is that there are no consequences to violating norms.”
In 2019, Smith penned an editorial published in the Edmonton Journal, questioning the lack of consequences for an ethics breach by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
In Trussler’s report, there are no sanctions recommended against Smith. She said she reserves the right to make such recommendations once the Legislative Assembly is back in session.
She is recommending that all new Members of the Legislative Assembly get mandatory training on the structure of the government and the roles of the three separate branches.
Trussler also recommended a review of the Conflicts of Interest Act with regard to the timing and release of future reports during an election.