Alison Redford cleared of 'tobaccogate' allegations in third probe

The ethics commissioner in British Columbia has found that former Premier Alison Redford was not in conflict of interest in the awarding of a lucrative contract in the so-called “tobaccogate” controversy.

Former premier was accused by critics of interfering in choice of a legal consortium for tobacco lawsuit

Former premier Alison Redford has been cleared in a re-investigation of allegations she interfered in the choice of a legal consortium to represent Alberta in a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit against the tobacco industry. (CBC)

The ethics commissioner in British Columbia has found that former Alberta premier Alison Redford was not in a conflict of interest in the awarding of a lucrative contract in the so-called "tobaccogate" controversy.

"I have found on the balance of probabilities that Ms.Redford did not improperly further another person's private interest in making her decision and, therefore, did not breach the conflicts of interest act," Paul Fraser wrote in a 53-page ruling released Monday.

Fraser's report concludes there was no conflict involving Redford's former husband Robert Hawkes, a Calgary lawyer and partner in the firm Jensen Shawa Solomon Duguid Hawkes, or JSS. That firm was part of a consortium of companies chosen by the Alberta Justice department, while Redford was minister of justice, to litigate a $10-billion lawsuit against the tobacco industry, triggering allegations of conflict by critics.

Fraser concluded Redford had "much closer historical and personal connections with lawyers in other firms" than she had with Hawkes.

"I found no motivation for her to want to further Mr. Hawkes' private interest," Fraser said in his report.

Fraser's report did refer to a series of political connections between Redford and Hawkes, however.

He noted that Hawkes was a member of a group that persuaded her to run for the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party leadership weeks after the tobacco contract was awarded.

Hawkes chaired her leadership campaign team and then was named to run her transition team after she won the leadership in October of 2011.

While the surfacing of leaked documents made it necessary to "clear the air," the findings of an earlier investigation done by former Alberta ethics commissioner Neil Wilkinson were correct, Fraser concluded.

"Aside from the extensive information that I have received from the government and through questioning of witness(es), no individual has come forward with new information," Fraser writes. "If any individual or organization outside government possessed any additional information, I would have expected them to provide it.

"There can surely be no valid reason for any new information to have been withheld by anyone and, I assume, therefore, that all of this story has now been told."

Fraser's ruling marks the third investigation into allegations that Redford, while she was Alberta's justice minister, influenced the government's decision to pick a consortium of law firms called International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers (ITRL) to litigate Alberta's lawsuit against tobacco companies.

Her former husband Robert Hawkes is a partner in one of those firms.

Redford was cleared in the first ethics investigation conducted by Wilkinson in 2013.

New probes

Then a CBC News story from November 2015 revealed the existence of new documents related to the issue which raised questions about the selection process and prompted a probe by former Supreme Court justice Frank Iaccobucci.

Iaccobucci determined Wilkinson didn't have all the documents he needed for the first investigation.

Alberta Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler said she had a potential conflict of interest in the matter, so she asked Fraser to determine whether another investigation was required. He agreed, and was asked to lead the third and latest probe last fall.

Fraser said he reviewed documents and questioned 19 people, some through written questions, some under oath "or both."

Fraser said Redford and Hawkes weren't close at the time the consortium was chosen so he found "no motivation" for her to further his private interests.

He said he believed that Redford wanted the process to be as open and transparent as possible. She had no direct involvement in designing the selection process or with the review committee, Fraser said.

As for the documents that launched the subsequent re-investigations, Fraser said one — a briefing note that changed the ranking of ITRL so its bid was back in the competition — was mostly a result of concerns raised by someone in Alberta Health who had no connections to Redford.

'Unexplained and confused'

Other emails and reference to an action request are "unexplained and confused," Fraser found.

"The passage of time has faded memories of the officials involved," he wrote. "In the course of re-investigation, significant efforts were made to try to determine what motivated these communications and whether there was anything untoward lying behind them.

"Nothing apart from speculation was available. However, what is clear is that Ms. Redford had nothing to do with the email chain."

Redford, he writes, was out of the country on a personal trip to a location without cell phone coverage when the emails were exchanged.