Alberta premier told to step aside in conflict of interest case

Alberta's opposition parties are calling on beleaguered Premier Alison Redford to step aside because they allege she lied to the legislature about making a decision that handed a potentially lucrative tobacco litigation contract to her ex-husband's law firm.

Opposition disputes Alison Redford's claim that she did not make controversial decision

Premier Alison Redford repeated on Thursday that she did not make the final decision to award the tobacco lawsuit litigation to her ex-husband's law firm. (Courtesy of City TV)

Alberta's opposition parties are calling on beleaguered Premier Alison Redford to step aside because they allege she lied to the legislature about making a decision that handed a potentially lucrative tobacco litigation contract to her ex-husband's law firm.

"You can't call someone a liar in the house. But it's clear that the premier lied about her involvement in this case, and it's clear that the government is in full damage control," provincial NDP Leader Brian Mason said Thursday afternoon.

"I'm today calling on Premier Redford to step aside until this matter is properly investigated and a clear answer as to whether or not she's in conflict of interest can be obtained."

Several hours earlier, similar accusations were made by the Wildrose Party.

NDP Leader Brian Mason called on Premier Alison Redford to step aside while the allegations against her are investigated. (CBC)

"In response to our question yesterday, Premier Redford said, and I quote, 'I was not the justice minister at the time that the government made that decision,' " Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith told reporters at a news conference Thursday. "That simply is not true."

Wildrose finance critic Rob Anderson, who is a lawyer, went further, saying, "That is the lie that was said yesterday in question period."

In question period on Thursday, Redford said that she was not lying when she told the legislature that she did not make the decision on the tobacco contract.

"Mr. Speaker, I did tell the truth," she said.

Anderson said Redford, a lawyer who once worked for the United Nations, had displayed a "severe lack of judgment in this case. Not only by the conflict of interest, which is very clear in this case, but also by the way she is responding to it. She is telling Albertans an out-and-out falsehood.

"I think there is an easy way out for the premier," Anderson said. "She needs to recant what she said. She needs to own up to the fact that she did make the decision while she was the justice minister."

Anderson said Wildrose is filing a complaint with Alberta's ethics commissioner, joining the Alberta Liberals who filed a complaint on Wednesday. 

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith and Airdrie MLA Rob Anderson held a news conference to discuss the accusations against Redford on Thursday. (CBC)

He also raised a point of privilege that Redford was in contempt of the legislature for misleading the house. Speaker Gene Zwozdesky has reserved his decision.

Redford's office announced she would hold a news conference Thursday, where she was expected to address the allegations against her. About 15 minutes before it was supposed to start, the news conference was cancelled.

However, Redford decided to hold an availability with reporters an hour and a half later, telling them that she wanted to wait until the point of privilege was dealt with.

She rejected a suggestion that documents at the heart of the matter show that she made the final decision on awarding the litigation contract.

"I will not let you characterize it to be that. I did not select any law firm. The minister of justice, well after I was the minister of justice, selected the law firm," she said.

"What I was asked to do is to consider the factors that needed to be considered. I did that. That was my job at the time. There was no decision made about who would be retained until well into June.

"And every single day, for I don't know how much longer, the opposition is going to stand up and characterize this as a decision. It was not a decision, and I stand by what I've said."

Chose ex-husband's firm

The controversy arose after a CBC News investigation revealed on Wednesday that Redford, while justice minister, personally chose the law firm of her former husband, Robert Hawkes, for a government tobacco-litigation contract worth potentially tens of millions of dollars in contingency fees.

Through Alberta's freedom-of-information law, CBC obtained a memo dated Dec. 14, 2010, in which Redford tells deputy justice minister Ray Bodnarek: "I note that the review committee considers all three firms interviewed to be capable of conducting the litigation and believes that while no consortium stood above the others, all three have unique strengths and weaknesses.

"Considering the perceived conflicts of interest, actual conflicts of interest, the structure of the contingency arrangement and the importance of a 'made in Alberta' litigation plan, the best choice will be the International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers," Redford wrote. Her signature is affixed to the document.

After the Wildrose accused Redford of a conflict of interest in the legislature on Wednesday, she denied having made the decision to hire International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers. 

"I was not the justice minister at the time that the government made that decision," Redford told the legislature. "The opposition can stand up every single day and say that I was, but I wasn't. It is simply not the case. It is simply not true."

Redford and other members of her cabinet, including Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk and Justice Minister Jonathan Denis, insisted the decision to chose International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers was made by Verlyn Olson, her successor as Alberta's justice minister after she stepped down in February to run for the Progressive Conservative Party leadership.

CBC News asked Olson, who is a lawyer, to confirm Redford's claim that he made the decision to chose ITRL. Olson did not respond to an interview request, but told the legislature on Thursday that he made the decision.

Files document decision

Documents obtained by CBC News, combined with documents also obtained by Wildrose, show that Redford made the decision and that her senior department officials and the winning law firm all confirmed she made the decision, as indicated by her Dec. 14, 2010, memo.

A series of internal Justice Department emails on Dec. 21, 2010 — two months before Redford stepped down from her cabinet post — refer specifically and repeatedly to the "winners" and the "losers." In one, assistant deputy minister Grant Sprague writes:

"Hi Barb, can you confirm with Jeff and modify as needed — get the letters to the losers confirmed and ready to go. You can sign for me. Speak to Lorne about the winners and the timing with the letters."

The "Jeff" referred to by Sprague was Jeff Henwood, Redford's executive assistant.

An email the next day from Sprague to Henwood and other department officials states: "Call made to Carsten Jensen at the successful consortium." Jensen is the lead lawyer for ITRL and a partner in the Calgary law firm of Redford's ex-husband.

Another Dec. 22, 2010, departmental email states: "Attached are the scanned signed memos that have just been emailed to the unsuccessful candidates."

Those memos contained a letter signed by Sprague titled, "Letter to unsuccessful party," which states: "I regret to advise that your proposal was not successful."

In a Jan. 6, 2011, email, Carsten Jensen of the winning consortium thanks senior justice official Lorne Merryweather.

"Grant [Sprague] and I spoke before Christmas, and we were very happy to learn that we will be working with you on the health recovering claim. The first step obviously will be for us to finalize the terms of retainer," Jensen writes.

In a Jan. 13, 2011, briefing note, assistant deputy minister Sprague states: "Shortly before Christmas, Minister Redford selected the International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers (the Jensen consortium)."

A Justice Department spokesman even confirmed to CBC News that Redford made the decision. A July 5, 2012, email from Justice spokesman Dan Laville to CBC states:

"On December 14, 2010, then justice minister Alison Redford determined that TRL consortium [sic] provided the best 'made in Alberta' litigation plan. The decision was communicated to the consortiums and law firm shortly thereafter."

Justice Department denies conflict of interest

Redford has not responded to repeated interview requests from CBC over the past several days.

Questions were instead directed to current Justice Minister Jonathan Denis. In an email Tuesday, Denis's executive assistant, Josh Stewart, said "there was no potential conflict of interest" for Redford.

"Ex-spouses are not included in the Conflict of Interest Act, and Mr. Hawkes (Redford's former husband) will not be working on this file."

In a phone conversation late Tuesday night, Denis personally stated that Redford, although having made the decision, was not in a conflict of interest.

By Wednesday afternoon however, Denis was telling reporters Redford had not made the decision.

Glenn Solomon is a partner in Jensen Shawa Solomon Duguid Hawkes, the Calgary firm that is part of the consortium that won the contract. It's the same firm at which Redford's former husband, Robert Hawkes, is a partner. Solomon insisted no decision was made by Redford and that the decision was actually only finalized when the contract was signed months later.