Doug Schweitzer pressured for support of Springbank dam project, emails show

Personal emails between Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer and Steve Allan, appointed by Schweitzer to head a high-profile public inquiry, reveal such an obvious conflict of interest that the province’s ethics commissioner must investigate, experts say.

Ethics commissioner urged to investigate Schweitzer’s relationship with inquiry appointee Steve Allan

Personal emails between Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer and public inquiry commissioner Steve Allan reveal a clear conflict of interest that the province's ethics commissioner should investigate, experts say. (CBC)

Personal emails between Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer and the man he appointed to head a high-profile public inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns reveal an obvious conflict of interest that the province's ethics commissioner should investigate, experts say.

The personal emails, obtained exclusively by CBC News from court records, show prominent Calgary businessman Steve Allan tied his political campaign support to Schweitzer publicly supporting the Springbank Dam project. 

That project would directly benefit Allan, whose house was destroyed in Calgary's 2013 flood. 

"There is definitely a back-scratching happening that is pretty obvious," said Ian Stedman, an expert in government ethics law.

"I think the appointment [as inquiry commissioner] is a kind of tacit acknowledgement that the minister believes Mr. Allan's efforts were of great benefit to him in his campaign."

The emails show Schweitzer, while at Dentons in Calgary, had since 2017 courted — and received — Allan's political support. 

But Allan made clear that he expected Schweitzer to support the Springbank project.

A chronology of events further shows that Schweitzer publicly reaffirmed his support for the Springbank Dam as Allan pressed him on the issue.

Schweitzer is already facing conflict-of-interest allegations for appointing Allan as commissioner, with a $290,000 salary, of the UCP government's Public Inquiry Into Funding of Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns. 

Those allegations followed reports by CBC News that Allan had campaigned for Schweitzer, donated to his UCP leadership campaign, and as commissioner had directed a $905,000 sole-source contract to Dentons, Schweitzer's former law firm.

The emails are contained in court documents filed by Allan's lawyer in response to a legal challenge of the public inquiry launched by Ecojustice, the environmental law charity. Ecojustice declined comment because the matter is before the courts.

Schweitzer and Allan deny any conflict

In an emailed statement, Schweitzer did not directly respond to the allegation that Allan tied his political support for Schweitzer to his support of the Springbank Dam. 

Instead, Schweitzer said, "it would be ridiculous to suggest that someone exercising their Charter rights by being politically involved in any way creates a blanket disqualification for serving one's province at a later time."

He said the Springbank Dam proposal "is overwhelmingly supported by the constituents of Calgary-Elbow, as well as by the Alberta Party and NDP candidates in the 2019 general election."

Allan was appointed by the Lieutenant Governor on Schweitzer's recommendation but he now claims Allan was appointed by the entire cabinet. 

Allan declined an interview request on the advice of his lawyer because the legal challenge is ongoing. 

In a letter, his lawyer David Wachowich told CBC News that Allan communicated with, and on behalf of, Schweitzer about flood mitigation in his position as chair of Calgary Economic Development, and also on behalf of his community. 

Wachowich said the engagement by Allan on this issue "may have identified (Allan) to the minister of energy, and the minister of justice and attorney general, as amongst those most qualified to take up the mandate of (the) commission." 

Wachowich said the allegation that Allan's "personal political and financial support" was tied to Schweitzer taking a public position on the Springbank Dam, or was linked to Allan's later appointment as inquiry commissioner, is "at the very least imbalanced, and potentially irresponsibly speculative."

Allan warns Schweitzer won't win without clear support for Springbank 

In 2018, Schweitzer was seeking the UCP nomination in Calgary-Elbow. As CBC News previously reported, Steve Allan, along with his former business partner Bob Taylor, and Quincy Smith, a partner at Dentons, sponsored a political event for Schweitzer at the Calgary Golf and Country Club on June 19.

The next day Schweitzer, on his campaign Facebook page, linked to a recent newspaper article about flood mitigation and said, "should I be chosen as the UCP candidate in Calgary-Elbow, I will be a strong advocate for the Springbank Upstream Dry Reservoir."

"I will approach this issue with renewed vigour and do everything I can to make sure it's built on time and on budget," Schweitzer wrote. "With your support, we can make that a reality." 

The Springbank dam project. (Alberta Transportation/YouTube)

On July 9, 2018, Allan emailed Schweitzer about a newspaper article that quoted UCP Leader Jason Kenney as saying he was not committed to one flood-mitigation plan.

Allan told Schweitzer the article caused "significant concern, and particularly for you, with the apparent equivocation on the Springbank project."

"It is absolutely critical for you to pin down Jason and the party on the Springbank project," Allan told him.

"If the UCP does not take a clear position in support of this project, I don't think you will win Calgary-Elbow and it will cost the UCP a lot, in terms of financial support."

The two men tentatively set up a meeting for the next day.

Political event for Schweitzer at Allan's house

In March 2019, a month before the provincial election, Allan hosted a meet-and-greet event for Schweitzer in Allan's home. But the invitation shows Allan implied his political support came with a condition. 

"Before I make a commitment as to who to support in the upcoming provincial election, however, I am anxious to hear Doug's position on (the Springbank reservoir project) as well as other UCP policies, and we are inviting several of our neighbours to join us in this conversation with Doug," Allan's invitation stated.

Two days before the gathering at Allan's house, Schweitzer, on his Facebook page, posted his support, and that of Jason Kenney, for the Springbank Dam.

The flood-mitigation project, which has been strongly opposed by some groups, would allow floodwater from the Elbow River to flow into a dry dam rather than inundate the Glenmore Reservoir in Calgary. 

Schweitzer linked to a statement, crafted in conjunction with Kenney, that said the UCP — on day one, if elected — would appoint an independent expert to determine why construction had not yet begun. 

The statement promised a UCP government would "expedite construction of the project without delay" as soon as it received the required environmental approval and completed the necessary consultations. 

Government ethics expert Ian Stedman said the emails make it even more clear that Schweitzer was in a conflict of interest when he appointed Allan. (linkedin.com)

On April 8, 2019, Allan sent an email to several dozen of his contacts in which he encouraged them to vote for Schweitzer. 

A week later, on the day before the election, Allan sent another email that explicitly tied his support for Schweitzer and the UCP to their support for the dam project. 

"Dear Neighbours, This is an issue that I am keenly interested in. We had to knock our house down after the 2013 flood and build a new home on our lot," Allan wrote.

While incumbent Alberta Party candidate Greg Clark had done a "wonderful job" from the opposition benches, Allan said "if Calgary-Elbow elects Doug Schweitzer, not only are we likely to have an MLA on the government side but there is a very good chance that Doug could be in cabinet.

"In my view, we have a much better chance of advancing the Springbank project with a UCP government and with Doug Schweitzer as our MLA."

Allan attached a message from Schweitzer's campaign that said, "we need shovels in the ground on the Springbank Dam."

Schweitzer subsequently won his riding and was appointed justice minister. Four days after the UCP government was sworn in, Transportation Minister Ric McIver announced the government had hired a Calgary lawyer to look at how to speed the dam's construction.

In July 2019, Schweitzer appointed Allan commissioner of the $2.5 million public inquiry.

Within 11 days of being appointed, Allan directed a $905,000 sole-source contract to Dentons, the law firm at which Schweitzer had been a partner, and where Allan's son Toby and one of Allan's best friends, Quincy Smith, are still partners. 

Allan also hired Deloitte to assist the inquiry. His former business partner, Bob Taylor, is a senior accountant at Deloitte.

Ethics commissioner must investigate, experts say

Duff Conacher of political watchdog Democracy Watch said the relationship between Schweitzer and Allan represents a textbook example of conflict of interest. 

"You're not allowed to improperly further another person's interests or someone who is directly associated with you," Conacher said, referencing Alberta's Conflicts of Interest Act. 

 "I think the evidence shows that both Steve Allan is directly associated with Schweitzer and that he had done favours for Schweitzer, and Schweitzer was looking for a way with the appointment (of Allan) of returning those favours."

Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher ... (CBC)

Government ethics expert Ian Stedman also said the relationship is an obvious example of a conflict of interest.

"It is very clear at this point that the minister is using his power to make a decision that furthers the private interests of a close associate, in Mr. Allan," Stedman said.

In December, Conacher asked Alberta's ethics commissioner, Marguerite Trussler, to investigate Schweitzer's appointment of Allan. Trussler asked Conacher for more evidence.

Stedman said it "blew my mind" when he read that Trussler had asked for more information. He said there was already more than enough information, even before these most recent emails surfaced, to warrant an investigation.

"I don't think at this point the commissioner can decline again," Stedman said. "She has to open up an investigation."

If you have any information about this story, or information for another story, please contact us in confidence at cbcinvestigates@cbc.ca

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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.