MLA Verlyn Olson accused of misleading legislature

The Opposition Wildrose says it plans to file a complaint against former justice minister Verlyn Olson for misleading the legislature in statements he made about his involvement in the tobacco-litigation lawsuit.

Olson claimed he made tobacco litigation decision

The Opposition Wildrose says it plans to file a complaint against former justice minister Verlyn Olson for misleading the legislature in statements he made about his involvement in the tobacco-litigation lawsuit.

"If he (was) purposely misleading the assembly, it is a very serious offence and it is a contempt of Parliament," Wildrose justice critic Shane Saskiw said, adding that, "we are going to be pushing that when we come back in session."

On Nov. 28, 2012, CBC News first revealed Premier Alison Redford had personally chosen a consortium, which included a Calgary law firm with close personal and political ties, for a potentially lucrative multi-billion dollar litigation contract. The firm was chosen to sue tobacco companies on behalf of the government of Alberta in an attempt to recoup some of the healthcare costs associated with smoking. 

After the story broke, Redford insisted she had not made the decision, but that it had instead been made by Olson, her successor as justice minister. Olson confirmed her version of events, telling the legislature he made the final decision.

"It was my call as to whether or not we finally went ahead with this firm," Olson told the legislature on Nov. 29, 2012 adding that, "I'm not about to stretch the truth or bend the truth for any purpose, for anybody.  So what I tell you is to the best of my ability, what I know."

Olson not interviewed by ethics commissioner

But an investigation by Ethics Commissioner Neil Wilkinson found Redford had in fact made the final decision to award the contract.

"I find it is entirely appropriate that a Minister, charged with the authority and responsibility for a final decision on a matter, exercise that authority to render a decision," Wilkinson wrote in his report, released Wednesday.

"I further find that in this instance there is no evidence of arbritrariness, unreasonableness, favouritism, nepotism or anything untoward in Premier Redford's participation, as minister of Justice, in the decision to direct ministry officials to commence negotiations with the (consortium)."

Olson declined several interview requests from CBC News but his press secretary said Olson stands by the statements he made in the legislature.

But while Olson continues to claim he made the final decision on the litigation contract, Wilkinson's report shows he did not even interview Olson during his investigation. In fact, the ethics commissioner's report only contains a single reference to Olson. It states the former justice minister signed the contingency-fee agreement with the law firm on June 21, 2011.

Premier's office made decision

Through freedom of information, CBC News obtained an email which appears to show Olson never even made the decision on the contingency-fee agreement.  It was instead made by then premier Ed Stelmach's two top political assistants.

In a June 16, 2011 email, Stelmach's deputy chief of staff, George Samoil says he and chief of staff Ron Glen had discussed the contingency-fee agreement and they direct Olson's department to sign off.

"We are both of the opinion that at their earliest convenience your officials should proceed with signing a contingency fee agreement," Samoil tells Pam Livingston, Olson's executive assistant.

The email string shows deputy minister Ray Bodnarek – now a Provincial Court judge - had initially been chosen to sign the agreement. But, as it turned out, Olson signed for the government on June 21, 2011.

There is only one reference in the documents obtained by CBC News which gives any indication that Olson was even aware of the tobacco-litigation contract. Dozens of pages were redacted by Alberta Justice.

On Nov. 28, 2012, the same day CBC News broke the story about Redford's involvement in the contract, Olson sent an email to a communications staff member in which he seems unsure about when the decision was made.

"I see that the choice of the Premier's former husband's law firm to do the tobacco litigation is in the news again," Olson wrote. "I think I was (Justice) minister when that happened. I shouldn't get (Question Period) questions on it but may be scrummed. Can you see what Justice has for speaking points just in case?"

The communications staffer provided Olson with a list of key talking points. It contained no reference to him having made the decision. But both Olson and his successor as justice minister, Jonathan Denis, subsequently publicly claimed that Olson, and not Redford, made the decision.