Alberta police watchdog to investigate whether Lethbridge officers broke law in surveilling former minister

Alberta's police watchdog has been directed to investigate whether there was criminal behaviour in the case of two Lethbridge police officers who have been suspended, after admitting to unauthorized surveillance of former Alberta environment minister Shannon Phillips in 2017.

Officers admitted to using their roles to surveil MLA Shannon Phillips for personal benefit

NDP MLA Shannon Phillips is calling for harsher penalities against two Lethbridge police officers who admitted to surveilling her without authorization in 2017. (Émilie Vast/CBC)

Alberta's police watchdog has been directed to investigate whether there was criminal behaviour in the case of two Lethbridge police officers who have been suspended, after admitting to unauthorized surveillance of MLA Shannon Phillips in 2017, when she was Alberta's environment minister.

The two watched and photographed the minister during a meeting in a diner, as well as following and running the licence plate of one of the people she met with. 

Sgt. Jason Carrier and Const. Keon Woronuk were temporarily demoted following a disciplinary hearing decision issued June 9, which was first reported by Medicine Hat's CHAT News Today on Monday.

An agreed statement of facts in that decision says one officer, Carrier, said he overheard Phillips discussing NDP plans to increase environmental protections and create a provincial park in the Castle region of southwest Alberta.

Both officers were involved in the off-roading community, whose members were upset by NDP plans to restrict off-road vehicle use in the environmentally sensitive area.

Discreditable conduct, acts of deceit

The disciplinary hearing found multiple breaches of police regulations. The penalty decision accused the officers of "using [their] position as a police officer for [their] personal advantage or another person's advantage" and included charges of corrupt practice, discreditable conduct and acts of deceit.

Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer expressed his shock via Twitter on Monday evening, saying he was previously unaware of the incident and that the government was not involved in the professional standards investigation.

He said the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team has been directed to review that investigation to determine whether there are grounds for a criminal investigation.

"To say it is completely unacceptable that members of the police would conduct unauthorized surveillance of any Albertan — in particular an elected official — is an understatement," he said. 

"If an officer in this town or officers are going to place someone under surveillance because they don't agree with them, what does that mean for overall community safety?" Phillips said in a press conference earlier Monday evening.

"We trust police officers to keep our communities safe … we don't expect them to initiate these threats or use their positions of authority to intimidate an elected official."

On April 14, 2017, the Lethbridge-West MLA, then the environment minister, held an informal breakfast meeting at Chef Stella Diner in Lethbridge. The police disciplinary decision says the meeting was to discuss NDP plans for a provincial park in the Castle region, although Phillips — who wasn't party to the agreed statement of facts — contested that through a spokesperson on Tuesday and said the primary purpose of the meeting was to discuss the reintroduction of bison into Banff National Park.

In any case, Phillips was overheard discussing the Castle area by Carrier, who was seated nearby with other officers on a break, and he texted Woronuk to join him, according to the agreed statement of facts.

Woronuk, who was an acting sergeant on duty that morning, joined and also took a photo of Phillips and the stakeholders.

As they were leaving the diner to resume their shifts, Woronuk said to Carrier he "would hate to see Phillips drive away from the restaurant and there was a reason to stop her," according to the agreed statement of facts.

Motivated by personal views

Woronuk admitted to then following one of the stakeholders as they left the meeting, running their licence plate and sending a screenshot to Carrier.

He said there was no lawful reason to run the screenshot and said his actions were motivated by his personal and political views. 

The following day, Woronuk posted a photo of Phillips alongside a caption criticizing her and her government to Facebook, under the alias "Mike Corps."

After learning of the post, Phillips made a complaint to Calgary police.

Calgary police investigated, and after discovering the unlawful licence plate search, passed their investigation on to Medicine Hat police, resulting in charges being laid. 

"A police officer must be ... seen to be impartial in the execution of their duties. There is no other way to police. This is a matter where the cited officers put their self-interests ahead of their oath of office and responsibilities," Supt. Paul Manuel wrote in his decision.

Woronuk will be demoted from senior constable to first-class constable for two years, after admitting to two counts of corrupt practice, as well as discreditable conduct, deceit and insubordination under the Police Service Regulation.

Carrier admitted to one count each of discreditable conduct and neglect of duty, and will be demoted from sergeant to senior constable for one year. 

Premier Jason Kenney called the conduct "completely unacceptable" late Monday night on Twitter, and praised Schweitzer for taking swift action.

Phillips said she was only made aware of the demotions Sunday and said she will be calling on the justice minister to appoint a special investigator to look into the matter.

Schweitzer said he has instructed his department to arrange for an out-of-province prosecutor, should ASIRT require legal advice in conducting its investigation or laying charges. 

CBC News has reached out to the three police services involved in the disciplinary proceedings for comment and has yet to receive a response.

Read the full decision below, or click here.

With files from Elise Von Scheel and Sarah Rieger