'Whistleblower' alleges Lethbridge police chief threatened retaliation against MLA, CBC journalist
Police say commission found no basis for public inquiry into anonymous letters
A year ago, New Democrat MLA Shannon Phillips received an anonymous "whistleblower" letter alleging someone from the Lethbridge police had threatened retaliation against her and a CBC journalist for exposing misconduct within the service.
Now recently obtained documents reveal it was the police chief, Shahin Mehdizadeh, who was accused of making the threat.
Phillips's lawyer had previously called for a public inquiry into that letter, and into another letter sent to a woman who had accused a former Lethbridge Police Service (LPS) inspector of sexual assault. The request was rejected owing in part to the police commission's concerns about the letters' anonymity and lack of specific evidence.
Still, justice studies expert Doug King says the situation warrants further investigation — to clarify once and for all if there's any truth to the allegations in the letters.
"If I was in the chief's shoes, I would want this — I would want a mechanism by which I can clear my name," said King, a professor at Mount Royal University.
He noted that public trust in police is maintained through transparency and dialogue.
"You can't kind of push this stuff aside, you have to embrace it and say, 'OK, let's try and be as transparent as we can,' [while] protecting the legal rights of everyone involved," King said.
Letters quoted in correspondence
The whistleblower letters are quoted in correspondence between Phillips's lawyer, Michael Bates, and Lethbridge Police Commission chair Rob vanSpronsen.
The documents were recently obtained by CBC News after being tabled in the Alberta Legislature late last year, and include:
A response from vanSpronsen rejecting Bates's request for an inquiry, owing in part to concerns that the allegations weren't supported by specific evidence, and came from an anonymous source who wasn't verifiably a current or former LPS member.
According to the correspondence, the letter to Phillips said, in part:
"You should know that Shahin Mehdizadeh speaks very negatively and in a sexist way about you daily at LPS. He is very vocal about a complaint he says he is preparing against you. He has said a number of times that he is going to 'burn you and CBC's Meghan Grant down.'"
The letter alleges the chief used an offensive word meaning mentally disabled.
"[He] has openly said in front of employees at LPS 'anyone who would vote for Shannon Phillips is r----ded,'" according to the documents.
"One can … fairly ask how a disabled or lesser-educated member of the community can be expected to be treated within the LPS if individuals with political differences are deemed 'r----ded,'" Bates said in his note to vanSpronsen.
Woman allegedly called a 'pain in the ass'
The other whistleblower letter — sent to Bates, as counsel for Emma — is also quoted in the correspondence as saying, in part:
"Just thought you should know that Lethbridge's top misogynist, Chief Mehdizadeh refers to your client around LPS as a "pain in the ass," and said that Bill Kaye should have used an escort."
In his correspondence with vanSpronsen, Bates describes the alleged comment as "extremely problematic."
In a statement, Phillips said the contents of the anonymous letters were "deeply unsettling, given the events that had preceded the letter, dating back to 2017."
"That is why I asked for an investigation," Phillips said in an email.
"I have no further comment, other than to say that the lack of response by the relevant authorities have contributed to an ongoing sense of insecurity and unease in my own city and indeed in my own home."
CBC News reached out to Bates and to Emma for this story; Bates declined to comment and Emma did not respond.
'No evidence' to prove anonymous claims, says LPS
VanSpronsen ultimately dismissed Bates's request for an inquiry. In his response to Bates, he said the allegations against Mehdizadeh were serious but were undermined by a lack of evidence.
In addition, he wrote that "the fact that both letters are anonymous is problematic in assessing the substantive nature of the allegations."
"The request is based on the assumption of Ruttan Bates that the communication is from an employee of the Lethbridge Police Service," wrote vanSpronsen. "However, there is little specific information in the communication that would definitively confirm the author(s) as employee(s) (or even former employee(s))."
In a news release issued at the time, vanSpronsen noted both the LPS and the City of Lethbridge had policies in place to deal with safe and respectful workplace concerns and whistleblower protection.
CBC News has requested an interview with Chief Mehdizadeh to discuss the allegations, but he was not made available.
In a statement, Kristen Saturley, strategic communications manager for the office of the chief of police, reiterated that Bates's request for an inquiry was dismissed after being reviewed by the police commission.
"There was no evidence, no witness identified and no identification of actual incidents upon which the assertions could be based," said Saturley in an email.
"Anonymous allegations, without any corroboration, are insufficient for proceeding to an inquiry, and that is why the commission dismissed the request."
Saturley said the LPS had nothing further to add to the commission's conclusion.
More investigation needed, says prof
CBC News asked LPS if it had conducted any investigations of its own to determine if there was any truth to the whistleblower letters' allegations.
Saturley said in an email that, per the Alberta Police Act, any complaints about the chief of police must be referred to the police commission, which can ask the minister to direct another service to investigate if necessary.
"The police act does not allow for anonymous complaints and requires a description of the incident that gave rise to the alleged misconduct — not just a bare allegation," said Saturley, who added that no further action had been taken after the matter was dismissed.
VanSpronsen told CBC News the police commission conducts both an annual workplace survey and an annual performance review of the chief, which involves interviews with a random selection of LPS employees.
"The data we collected in both cases does not support the veracity of the allegations contained in the anonymous communications," said vanSpronsen.
"In fact, based on all the data we collected, the Lethbridge Police Commission is very confident that Chief Mehdizadeh is upholding the high standards the Alberta Police Act and the Alberta Police Service Regulations expects of a chief of police."
Still, King said there's no reason a police service couldn't hire an external entity, such as a lawyer, to complete an investigation.
This type of investigation wouldn't have legal standing — meaning the police commission wouldn't be legally required to act on any of its recommendations — but it could at least be used for informational purposes, according to King.
"If nothing happens, if this just is allowed to sit, it will not serve the police service well," he said.
"In terms of the confidence that the citizens of Lethbridge have in their police, it will start to erode it — and once you erode confidence in police, it's very hard for the police to get it back."
Prior internal issues
The whistleblower letters sent to Phillips and to Emma were not the first allegations of misconduct within the LPS.
It was previously revealed members of the police service had monitored Phillips while she was the NDP's environment minister.
Members of the service took secret photos of Phillips meeting with constituents at a diner in 2017. A subsequent freedom of information request revealed that people who work for the service searched a police database eight times for her name, with no investigative purpose.
Sanctions have also been taken against officers following a controversy known as "MemeGate," in which officers were accused of distributing inappropriate images.
With files from Janet French, Meghan Grant and The Canadian Press