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Alberta to review tobacco lawsuit conflict-of-interest probe that cleared Alison Redford

A retired Supreme Court justice will review an Alberta ethics commissioner's investigation that examined how the contract to litigate the province's $10-billion tobacco lawsuit was awarded under former premier Alison Redford, Alberta's justice minister says.

Retired Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci to consider if ethics probe had all relevant info

Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley says 'serious' allegations have emerged that an ethics investigation that cleared former premier Alison Redford of conflict-of-interest may not have been provided all the relevant documents. (CBC)

A retired Supreme Court justice will review an Alberta ethics commissioner's investigation that examined how the contract to litigate the province's $10-billion tobacco lawsuit was awarded under former premier Alison Redford, Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley announced Monday. 

The review follows a CBC News investigation that revealed the process for choosing a legal consortium to handle the case had been manipulated. The consortium chosen — International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers (ITRL) and its lead firm, JSS Barristers of Calgary — had close personal and political ties to Redford and the Progressive Conservative Party.

The CBC News investigation also revealed an ethics investigation into conflict-of-interest allegations against Redford may not have been provided all the relevant documents, including some leaked to CBC.

"Over the course of the last few days, concerns have emerged that the ethics commissioner at the time, Neil Wilkinson, may not have had all the information that was relevant to his inquiry," Ganley said in a news release.

"These allegations are serious," she said. "We believe that the best path forward to ensure an objective review is to have that review performed externally."

The review will be conducted by retired Supreme Court of Canada justice Frank Iacobucci.

"At the premier's direction, any and all government documents that he feels may be relevant will be provided to him," Ganley said. "Mr. Iacobucci will also meet with any individuals he believes may assist in the review. Officials have been directed to speak freely. Mr. Iacobucci will provide his advice in a letter that will be made public."

The review is expected to be finished by the end of February.

Independent selection process manipulated

CBC News obtained leaked internal Alberta Justice documents that showed ITRL had been ranked last by an "independent" government review committee, and effectively eliminated from consideration. The committee instead recommended Redford choose from two other consortiums that it deemed equal to each other but superior to ITRL.

But the committee abruptly changed its assessment after it sent its initial recommendation in a briefing note to Redford's executive assistant. The committee produced a second version of the same briefing note that inserted ITRL back into the competition, removed its last-place ranking and recommended Redford choose whichever of the three consortiums she thought "appropriate."

Former justice minister Alison Redford says no one from the Justice Ministry informed her that the legal consortium she chose to represent Alberta in a massive lawsuit against tobacco companies had been ranked last by a review committee. (CBC)

Less than a week later, Redford chose ITRL, saying they represented the "best choice."

But other internal documents obtained by CBC News show the review committee did not agree with that characterization, and also did not believe all three consortiums were equal.

There is nothing in the documents that indicates why the original briefing note was modified or who made the dramatic changes to the original version. Nothing in the documents indicates Redford saw the first version of the briefing note. In a statement to CBC News, Redford said no one from the ministry told her ITRL had been ranked last.

In May 2012, CBC News first revealed the lead Alberta law firm in ITRL is JSS Barristers, a Calgary law firm with close personal and political ties to Redford. A partner in JSS is Redford's ex-husband Robert Hawkes. The two divorced more than 20 years ago but he remained a strong political supporter. Hawkes served as head of Redford's transition team in 2011 after she won the Progressive Conservative Party's leadership and became premier.

In November 2012, CBC News revealed Redford had personally chosen ITRL and JSS Barristers. The story was based on documents released through freedom of information by Alberta Justice, including a Dec. 14, 2010, memo in which Redford said ITRL was the "best choice."

Opposition parties accused Redford of conflict of interest. She claimed there was no conflict because she did not make the decision to hire ITRL. A subsequent investigation by Alberta's ethics commissioner cleared Redford of the conflict allegations but confirmed she had made the decision.

Alberta's $10-billion lawsuit against the tobacco industry — the largest in the province's history — is an attempt to recoup some of the health-care costs associated with smoking.

If successful, it could provide a multibillion-dollar windfall for the province's depleted coffers — and potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in contingency fees for ITRL.

All 10 provinces are suing the tobacco industry.

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