Political watchdog urges ethics commissioner to investigate Alberta justice minister

Democracy Watch is once again urging Alberta's ethics commissioner to investigate Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer's decision to appoint a campaign donor and supporter to a lucrative position.

Democracy Watch says Doug Schweitzer clearly violated conflict-of-interest law

Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher has once again asked Alberta's ethics commissioner to investigate a controversial appointment made by Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer. (CBC)

Political watchdog Democracy Watch is once again urging Alberta's ethics commissioner to investigate Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer's decision to appoint a campaign donor and supporter to a lucrative job as public inquiry commissioner.

Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher filed a nine-page, detailed complaint to commissioner Marguerite Trussler on Dec. 11. In it, he cited CBC News stories that revealed public inquiry commissioner Steve Allan had both campaigned for Schweitzer and donated to his leadership campaign — the same minister who appointed Allan to his $290,000 position as head of the Public Inquiry Into Funding Of Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns.

But in a brief response letter, Trussler told Conacher his letter "does not provide sufficient particulars" for her to investigate.

"If you wish me to consider your request, you will need to provide the facts on which you are basing your allegations," she wrote on Dec. 17.

Conacher said Trussler's response is bizarre.

"I don't understand why she is saying that we didn't provide facts that back up our allegations, because we did," he said. "We sent links to an article which contains lots of facts about Steve Allan campaigning for Minister Schweitzer, and also Minister Schweitzer's recommendation, in a government document, that Allan be appointed as inquiry commissioner.

"So what more facts do you need?"

He said his organization will have to wait to see how Trussler responds to his reply, sent Monday, in which he restated the facts and his request for an investigation.

Allan organized Schweitzer campaign event, made personal donation

In November, CBC News revealed public inquiry commissioner Steve Allan campaigned for Schweitzer in 2018, organizing along with two other business associates a country-club event to support Schweitzer as he sought the United Conservative Party (UCP) nomination.

Internal emails show Allan subsequently urged several dozen contacts to vote for Schweitzer in the 2019 provincial election, in part because "if the UCP wins, there is an excellent chance Doug will be in cabinet."

Allan also personally supported Schweitzer in 2017 with a $1,000 cash donation to his UCP leadership campaign.

Conacher alleges Schweitzer's appointment of Allan is a clear breach of two sections of Alberta's Conflicts of Interest Act.

The first states an MLA cannot take part in a decision if it might further the private interests of someone directly associated with them. The second says an MLA violates the Act if they use their office's powers to influence a decision that might "improperly further" a direct associate's private interest.

Conacher said it is well established in Canadian law that "when someone campaigns for a politician, then the politician can't return the favour by doing anything for them when they are elected — especially when they are a minister."

Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer has refused to answer questions about his appointment of Steve Allan. (CBC)
Schweitzer previously did not comment on Allan's campaigning for him. In relation to the $1,000 donation, his press secretary said in a statement that Albertans have the right to donate to political parties and that it is "frankly ridiculous to suggest that donating one-fourth of the maximum annual allowable amount over two years ago somehow secures an appointment."

"Mr. Allan was chosen solely based on his professional experience," the statement continued.

The minister subsequently deflected Opposition NDP questions about his relationship with Allan at a November legislative committee meeting, and refused to speak with a CBC News reporter during a meeting break.

Allan has not responded to interview requests about his political support for Schweitzer.

Government should have investigated sole-source contract, expert says

The NDP had previously asked Trussler to investigate another controversy involving Allan: whether he breached any ethics rules by personally awarding a $905,000 sole-source contract to Dentons law firm in Calgary, where his son is a partner. Schweitzer is also a former partner at that firm.

Trussler, however, said she had no jurisdiction to investigate because the UCP government appointed Allan in such a way that he is not considered a designated office holder.

Subsequently, the NDP asked Alberta Energy deputy minister Grant Sprague to review the matter.

But Sprague told the NDP he would not, claiming Allan did not violate the government's code of conduct and ethics, and that he had "sole discretion" to select whichever law firm he wished. He also said given the law firm's size, Allan's son would not derive "any significant financial benefit from the file."

Richard Leblanc, an expert in ethics and governance at Toronto's York University, said Sprague's decision defies common sense.

"The way I look at it, there are at least two and possibly three perceived conflicts of interest," he said.

Law firm awarded contract is Schweitzer's former firm

Leblanc said the Alberta government's code of conduct is poorly drafted. But he noted Allan awarded the contract to his son's law firm, the same firm in which Schweitzer, who appointed Allan as commissioner, had been a partner. 

Richard Leblanc, an expert in ethics and governance at York University, says the UCP government should have investigated a $905,000 sole-source contract commissioner Steve Allan awarded. (CBC)
Given those facts alone, Leblanc said Sprague should have determined whether Allan was in a "reasonable, objective, perceived conflict of interest.

"And the answer is yes," Leblanc said.

Allan previously told CBC News in an email he chose Dentons because he has a "long and successful history of working with counsel at Dentons through my professional career" and has confidence in the services they will provide to the inquiry.

Leblanc said that rationale is not a proper explanation for Allan's actions. One of the only valid rationales for a sole-source contract is that there is a "very narrow area of expertise and there might be two or three people in the country that can do it," he said, adding another factor is whether the need for the work is urgent, which he argued it is not in this case.

"So to say that you have a pre-existing relationship, as a basis for sole sourcing, points more to a conflict than the rationale for the sole source," he said.

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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.