Alberta government won't investigate controversial $905K sole-source contract

The Alberta government will not investigate the controversial $905,000 sole-source contract public inquiry commissioner Steve Allan personally awarded to the law firm in which his son is a partner.

Alberta Energy deputy minister says no conflict in Steve Allan’s awarding contract to Dentons

Steve Allan, who is heading Alberta’s public inquiry into allegations of foreign-funded reputational attacks on the province’s oil and gas industry, granted a sole-source contract for legal advice to inquiry to a law firm in which his son is a partner. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

The Alberta government will not investigate the controversial $905,000 sole-source contract public inquiry commissioner Steve Allan personally awarded to the law firm in which his son is a partner.

Last week, CBC News revealed Allan handed the contract for legal advice to Dentons law firm in Calgary, despite the fact his son Toby is a partner there.

The contract was issued 11 days after Allan was named, on recommendation from Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer, to head the $2.5-million Public Inquiry Into Funding of Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns.

On Friday, the NDP asked Alberta Energy deputy minister Grant Sprague to investigate whether Allan broke any rules by awarding the contract to a firm with which he shares such a close personal connection.

Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler previously told the NDP she did not have the jurisdiction to launch an investigation.

But in a response sent Monday, Sprague told NDP ethics critic Heather Sweet he will not investigate.

"I am satisfied that Mr. Steve Allan is not in violation of the Code of Conduct and Ethics and there is no conflict between his private interests and his role as Commissioner," Sprague wrote in a letter to Sweet.

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Sprague said he based his decision on several facts. He said Allan, as an independent commissioner, has the "sole discretion" to select whichever firms he wishes. And Sprague said Allan "chose a competent and well-respected international law firm," Dentons, to assist him.

Sprague said Allan's son Toby has no involvement with the inquiry and "as one of roughly 250 partners in Canada, he will not receive any significant financial benefit from the file."

Finally, Sprague said Allan is not a designated office holder under the Public Service Act, and therefore the act's rules against an office holder furthering the private interests of their child does not apply to him.  

A spokesperson for Schweitzer has previously said Alberta Justice officials are "not aware of any conflict that would prohibit the Inquiry from contracting with Dentons for services."

Government response 'troubling': NDP

Allan has not made himself available for an interview over the last week. In a text, he said his son will not benefit from the contract in any way, though he did not address the specific question of whether his son, as a partner in the firm, would share in the contract's revenue.

In an interview, Sweet said the government's response is troubling.

"Because he wasn't designated [an office holder] under the order-in-council, he doesn't have the same responsibility for the code of conduct and ethics of the public service," Sweet said.

"So my question is: does he really just not report to anybody in this government?"

She added that it appears Allan has "zero accountability to Albertans."

Sprague was involved in a 2012 controversy in which former premier Alison Redford selected a law firm with close personal and political ties for a potentially lucrative tobacco-litigation contract.

Internal documents obtained by CBC News showed senior Justice officials, including Sprague, significantly altered an assessment of one of the competing firms — a firm they had initially ranked last and effectively eliminated from further consideration — which allowed Redford the opportunity to choose it.

Two ethics investigations cleared Redford of conflict of interest allegations.

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Jennie Russell, Charles Rusnell

Former investigative reporters

Charles Rusnell and Jennie Russell were reporters with CBC Investigates, the investigative unit of CBC Edmonton. They left CBC in 2021. Their journalism in the public interest is widely credited with forcing accountability, transparency and democratic change in Alberta.