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Ethics commissioner finds no conflict with justice minister appointing political supporter to inquiry post

Alberta's ethics commissioner has concluded Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer did not breach the province's conflicts of interest act by appointing donor and political supporter Steve Allan to lead the province’s public inquiry into alleged foreign-funded attacks on the oil industry.

Commissioner finds Minister Doug Schweitzer had nothing to gain from appointment of Steve Allan

In a report released Monday, Alberta's ethics commissioner concluded Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer did not breach the province's Conflicts of Interest Act by appointing a political supporter to a lucrative position. (Andrea Huncar/CBC)

Alberta's ethics commissioner has concluded Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer did not breach the province's conflicts of interest act by appointing donor and political supporter Steve Allan to lead the province's public inquiry into alleged foreign-funded attacks on the oil industry.

"Just because Mr. Allan made political donations to Minister Schweitzer in the past does not make the subsequent appointment of Mr. Allan as inquiry commissioner a private interest for the minister," Marguerite Trussler wrote in a ruling released Monday.

In her ruling, Trussler reiterated her previous comments that she has no jurisdiction to investigate Allan's awarding of a $905,000 sole-source contract to Dentons, where his son was a partner and his good friend, Quincy Smith, also works.

"It does stretch credibility that Mr. Allan did not consider whether or not there may possibly be a conflict of interest in his engaging of Dentons as counsel for the inquiry, given that, for all intents and purposes, the firm gave him free office space and both his close friend (although that alone is not significant) and his son were partners at the firm."

In November, CBC News revealed Allan campaigned for Schweitzer in 2018, organizing along with two other business associates, Smith and Bob Taylor, a country-club event to support Schweitzer as he sought the United Conservative Party nomination.

Emails show the invoice from the event totalled nearly $1,250. Allan paid it on behalf of the three men, asking the others to write him cheques for their share of the cost. Schweitzer's financial disclosure from the nomination contest does not list any donation from Allan, Smith or Taylor.

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." In March 2019, a month before the provincial election, Allan hosted a meet-and-greet event for Schweitzer in Allan's home. 

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

Although Trussler's investigation verified all of the previous reporting by CBC News, she prefaced her report by suggesting media reports were not rooted in fact. 

"Sometimes an event, on the face of it and on the basis of the allegations presented in the news and on social media, appears to observers to be malodorous and warrants an investigation," Trussler stated in the report's introduction. "This situation is one such event.

"However, often with the media and particularly social media, the truth is inconvenient and facts are of no interest at all."

Democracy Watch filed ethics complaint

In December, Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher filed a nine-page, detailed complaint to Trussler, alleging Schweitzer's appointment of Allan was a clear breach of two sections of Alberta's Conflicts of Interest Act.

Allan co-sponsored a 2018 country-club fundraiser for Schweitzer as he sought the UCP nomination and hosted a meet-and-greet at his home for Schweitzer shortly before the 2019 election. (CBC)
The first section 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.

But in her report, Trussler said Allan "does not meet the definition of a 'direct associate' of the minister in the act."

"Neither the minister, his children, nor his direct associates had any personal or particular interest in, or anything to gain from, the appointment of Mr. Allan as inquiry commissioner," she said.

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."

Allan's contract showed he will be paid $290,000 for the position. In June, the government extended the deadline for him to submit his final report and increased his budget by $1 million.

In an interview with CBC News, Conacher said Trussler's ruling defies logic. 

"The biggest glaring error, I think, is that she sets out all the different things that Steve Allan did for Doug Schweitzer, to help him get elected," Conacher said, "and then she ignores all of those things that have been confirmed as actions by Steve Allan when she is reaching the conclusion that what he did did not cross the line and it was not enough to create a conflict of interest for Schweitzer.

"And you can't just ignore facts in your own report," he said.

Conacher said it is "unfortunate to see, as we have seen in other provinces and at the federal level, the Alberta ethics commissioner roll over and act like a lapdog instead of enforcing the law properly and holding politicians to the high standards that are in the law."

Allan met all requirements for position, commissioner says

Trussler's investigation found Schweitzer's staff tried, but failed, to find a suitable candidate for inquiry commissioner from the oil and gas industry. 

"As Steve Allan had emailed the minister several times and chatted with him at least once after the election, pressing for action on flood mitigation and economic development for Calgary, it is no surprise that Mr. Allan's name came to mind for the inquiry," the report states.

Allan, Trussler said, met all the requirements for commissioner. He was a forensic accountant and had a "high and reputable" profile in Calgary. Trussler did not explain why a high-profile reputation in Calgary was a necessary requirement for the position.

She also found Allan was "reasonably non-partisan," having donated to all other major political parties in the past. 

Trussler said Allan indicated he wanted to hire his own legal counsel and specifically wanted to hire David Mann, a lawyer at Dentons in Calgary, because he had worked with him in the past and was comfortable with him. 

The commissioner said Schweitzer knew "in passing" that Allan wanted to appoint Dentons as legal counsel, but acted appropriately and did not interfere with Allan's independence. She also said Allan appears to have engaged Dentons before Schweitzer was aware he was doing so.

"In any event, at that point, the minister had no financial interest in Dentons or relationship with the law firm and therefore the potential engagement of Dentons as counsel for the inquiry was of no importance to his obligations under the Conflicts of Interest Act." 

No one in Schweitzer's office knew that Allan's son, Toby, was then a partner at Dentons, Trussler said. 

In her report, Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler concluded Allan did not meet the definition of a "direct associate" of Schweitzer's, according to the Conflicts of Interest Act. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)
Trussler said Schweitzer had not acted improperly when he recommended Allan as inquiry commissioner. Schweitzer, she said, "was tasked with recommending a suitable candidate for the position and he was genuinely of the view that Mr. Allan was highly qualified in that regard.

"Minister Schweitzer did not owe Mr. Allan anything and there is nothing to suggest that he acted for the purpose of giving Mr. Allan preferential treatment or because Mr. Allan made political donations to him in the past."

Trussler however, makes no reference to the fact that Allan hosted a political event at his house for Schweitzer in March 2019 and she appears to draw no inference from Allan emailing dozens of people and urging them to vote for Schweitzer.

"In my review, the relationship between Minister Schweitzer and Mr. Allan does not weigh in favour of a finding of impropriety in this investigation," she wrote. "They were simply acquaintances in Calgary who occasionally communicated about issues such as economic strategy and flood mitigation." 

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