Alberta calls in outside Crown prosecutor for alleged voter-fraud investigation

An outside Crown prosecutor will be hired to advise the Alberta RCMP in its ongoing investigation into allegations of voter fraud during the 2017 UCP leadership race.

UCP government had resisted opposition calls for independent counsel

Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer spoke to the media on Thursday shortly after the news broke that the government will hire an outside Crown prosecutor to monitor RCMP investigations into the UCP leadership race. (Michelle Bellfontaine/CBC)

An outside Crown prosecutor will be hired to advise the Alberta RCMP in its ongoing investigation into allegations of voter fraud during the 2017 UCP leadership race.

"Based on recent information, the [Alberta Crown Prosecution Service] will seek an out-of-province prosecutor to provide advice to police on any matters arising during the investigation," the service's acting head, Sarah Langley, said Thursday in a statement.

"The Alberta Crown Prosecution Service has closely monitored this matter to ensure the file is appropriately managed," Langley said. "As independent prosecutors, our role includes continually reassessing matters based on the latest information we have available."

On Monday, CBC News revealed the RCMP had questioned Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer as part of their investigation into alleged voter fraud during the controversial UCP leadership contest in 2017. Schweitzer was also a leadership candidate, and along with fellow candidate Brian Jean, had tried unsuccessfully to stop the vote a few hours after it began, citing concerns about voting irregularities.

Schweitzer told the legislature on Monday he had spoken with the Mounties for 30 minutes the previous day and fully answered the investigators' questions. He said police "had no further, other questions" for him at the end of the interview.

Outside the legislature on Monday, Schweitzer told reporters the RCMP had informed him that he was not under investigation. And Schweitzer insisted there was no need to call in an outside prosecutor because the RCMP investigation was completely independent.

'Free from any influence'

On Thursday, Schweitzer told reporters the decision to bring in an outside prosecutor "was made independent of me or any other elected official. The process worked exactly as it was supposed to; free from any influence.

"As I have said all along, Alberta has independent police investigations and an independent prosecution service. Public trust and confidence in the police, the prosecution, and the justice system as a whole is the core of our democracy."

But as CBC News reported earlier this month, Justice deputy minister Phil Bryden, who is supposed to be independent, also refused to call in an outside prosecutor and provided the same rationale as Schweitzer in a nearly identical statement.

"Police investigations are independent, including independent of government. By virtue of this, elected officials are not involved in operational decisions or investigations of police, including the RCMP," Bryden said in an emailed statement to CBC News.

"As such, elected officials are not involved in directing a police investigation, nor do department officials need to take additional steps to ensure police independence."

Long overdue, Notley says

Official Opposition Leader Rachel Notley on Thursday told reporters the decision to call in an outside prosecutor was long overdue, and shows the need to ensure the integrity of the investigation.

"It took over a month for them to ultimately get to the point of making the right decision," Notley said.

"While they have made the right decision — and that is good — we had to bring a significant amount of pressure to bear for that to happen," she said. "And so I think going forward, we need to be equally vigilant in ensuring that all other elements of this investigation are transparently and independently managed."

On Wednesday, Notley asked Premier Jason Kenney in the legislature if Schweitzer had informed him about being questioned by the RCMP.

Kenney admitted Schweitzer had informed his staff.

Notley told reporters on Thursday that Schweitzer should not have said "a single solitary thing" to the premier about the RCMP investigation, given how closely Kenney is associated to the investigation.

"That in itself was yet another indication of the attorney general acting inappropriately and frankly the premier acting inappropriately," Notley said.

As justice minister and solicitor general, Schweitzer is responsible for ensuring the independence of several ongoing RCMP investigations related to the UCP leadership race. He is also generally responsible for policing in Alberta, and his ministry signs a contract with the RCMP for provincial policing.

Schweitzer was also a candidate in the UCP leadership race. Just hours after the voting process began in late October 2017, he and fellow candidate Brian Jean asked the party to suspend the vote over concerns about voter fraud. The UCP refused, insisting its process was secure.

Following Schweitzer's appointment as justice minister, the Opposition NDP demanded the UCP government appoint a special Crown prosecutor, alleging a conflict of interest. The government refused.

RCMP investigations in Calgary, Edmonton

Police often seek advice from Crown prosecutors during an investigation. But Langley, the acting head of the province's prosecution service, stressed they do not oversee investigations.

CBC News and other news outlets have revealed serious problems with the vote, and the RCMP are now conducting criminal investigations in both Calgary and Edmonton.

In Calgary, documents revealed email addresses fraudulently attached to party memberships were used to cast ballots in the leadership vote. And people with suspect emails attached to their memberships confirmed they did not vote in the leadership race, and that their emails were different from the ones on the list.

The RCMP are also investigating allegations of illegal political donations to the UCP leadership campaign of Jeff Callaway. Documents obtained by CBC News show Callaway ran for the sole purpose of targeting Brian Jean on behalf of the campaign of Jason Kenney.

Alberta's elections commissioner has so far issued fines totalling $71,000 related to improper donations to Callaway's campaign and attempts to obstruct his office's investigation.

with files from Michelle Bellefontaine