Officials with the Canada School of Energy and Environment in Calgary are defending their decision to hire Bruce Carson, a former adviser to Stephen Harper who is seen here in a November interview with CBC News, as executive director. (CBC)

The people who hired Bruce Carson knew he had a criminal record before tapping him to serve as the executive director of the Canada School of Energy and Environment.

In the early 1980s, Carson pleaded guilty to defrauding law clients and spent 18 months in jail. He was also disbarred. 

This week, the Prime Minister's Office asked the RCMP to investigate the former top political aide to Stephen Harper over allegations he may have breached the Conflict of Interest Act.

The chair of the Canada School of Energy and Environment's board of directors defends the organization's decision to hire the former senior prime ministerial aide despite his brush with the law in 1982.

"Absolutely, we've reviewed that," Brian Heidecker told CBC News.

"That's a very serious situation, but 25 years of unblemished service after that, we seem to have the opinion he had learned his lesson."

Heidecker stressed Carson pleaded guilty, served his jail time and was granted a pardon.

"We decided the past was the past and that we would recruit him and retain him," he said in a phone interview from Edmonton.

Carson stepped aside late Wednesday from his leadership role until any potential RCMP review is concluded.

"Out of respect for this process, the office of the prime minister, and the many business and community leaders with whom I work, I will be taking a leave of absence effective immediately from all of my professional responsibilities until the investigation is concluded," he said in a statement, adding he hired a lawyer and will not comment further.

The allegations against Carson stem from an investigation by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.

The network reports Carson was allegedly lobbying Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and the minister's office on behalf of an Ottawa-based water company trying to sell water filtration systems to reserves with water quality problems.

Carson's work praised

Heidecker praised Carson's work with the Canada School of Energy and Environment over the last three years.

"He has been able to cause a lot of very, very good conversations in the whole area of energy and environment," he said.

Heidecker, who also chairs the U of A's board of governors, denied that Carson's longtime conservative political connections played a role in his 2008 appointment to the school, which received millions of dollars in federal funding.

"Mr. Carson has phenomenal contacts within the private sector, within the public sector — and it was that ability to know people and access people... [that] we hired him," says Heidecker.

Administered by the universities of Calgary, Alberta and Lethbridge, the Canada School of Energy and Environment has yet to decide if Carson will get paid during his leave of absence, or who will head the institution during any RCMP investigation.

The University of Calgary declined to comment, noting in an e-mail to CBC News that Carson is "not a U of C employee."