Independent probe into contact between Alberta premier's office, prosecutors needed, says political scientist
‘We need clarity,’ says University of Calgary political science professor Lisa Young
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith should call an independent investigation into contact between her office, the justice minister's office and Crown prosecutors to put questions to rest, one political scientist says.
Sources have told CBC News that Smith, over several months, asked for updates on cases or inquired whether it would be possible to abandon them.
University of Calgary political science professor Lisa Young says questions about the actions of Smith and her staff may follow them until an impartial third-party can look at the evidence.
"There's a lot of smoke around this, which suggests there is a fire," Young said Wednesday.
"And it's very clear that there's now a perception that something has gone on here. Which means, we need clarity."
Exchanges between the premier's office and Justice Minister Tyler Shandro's office over several months included what sources characterized to CBC News as attempts to influence cases.
One source called the contact "inappropriate" – a characterization the premier's office refutes.
CBC News has agreed not to name the sources because of potential professional repercussions.
One source said Smith committed to asking Shandro to end the prosecution of Artur Pawlowski, a pastor charged with two counts of criminal mischief and a charge under Alberta's Critical Infrastructure Defence Act related to the Coutts border blockade.
While running for UCP leader and as premier, Smith has said publicly she would look into ways to grant amnesty to people facing non-violent charges in pandemic-related cases.
In a statement Wednesday, Smith's office said she and her staff had "several discussions" with the justice minister and public servants in the justice department about amnesty options. She followed their legal advice and recommendations, the statement said.
"All communications between the Premier, her staff, the Minister of Justice and Ministry of Justice public servants have been appropriate and made through the proper channels," the statement said.
In a separate statement, Shandro's press secretary, Ethan Lecavalier-Kidney, said the premier requested briefings, which they provided. He said the premier did not provide direction to Shandro.
"The Alberta Crown Prosecution Service Acts independently and at no time has any political decision affected ongoing prosecutions."
Young said the premier's stance may endear some voters, who are angry about pandemic vaccination mandates and tickets and charges issued during public health restrictions.
However, Young says polling shows the majority of Albertans are more concerned with issues like affordability and health care, and may be turned off by Smith's continuing focus on perceived pandemic wrongs.
Separation of politicians and courts key, prof says
Peter Sankoff, lead counsel at Sankoff Criminal Law in Edmonton and a University of Alberta law professor, said a politician asking questions about court cases could be perceived as exerting influence.
He said the issue is raising questions about the independence of the justice system.
"There's a reason why the political and legal spheres are not supposed to mix," Sankoff said.
"It starts to suggest that if you know the people in power, you are going to get results that are better for you than if you don't."
In a video posted online Dec. 20 by Rebel News, Pawlowski said he has been "working in the background on the political level" to have his charges withdrawn.
"Maybe someone smarter than the Minister Shandro said 'Hey, this is not in our interest to wage the war against the ministers and pastors,'" Pawlowski said in the video.
CBC News last week reported, based on sources, that a staff member in the premier's office had emailed Crown prosecutors several times last fall about ongoing cases related to Coutts border blockade charges.
CBC News has not viewed those emails.
The premier said she had no knowledge of the matters and launched an email search last weekend.
The justice ministry said the search found no record of emails between Smith's staff or "relevant" Crown prosecutors between September and December.
The government later added that deleted emails would only be retained for 30 days, which would go back to Dec. 22.
In a separate statement Wednesday afternoon, Smith called for CBC to retract its story from last week in which sources said the premier's office had emailed Crown prosecutors about Coutts-related cases.
She called that story "outrageous" and "defamatory," adding that CBC had not seen the emails in question.
Edmonton-Whitemud NDP MLA Rakhi Pancholi repeated her call Wednesday for an independent investigation into alleged political influence on prosecutions.
"I think Albertans now rightfully have questions about how the premier defines 'appropriate,'" Pancholi said at a news conference.
Smith has previously said she talked to Crown prosecutors about pandemic-related cases, then later said she spoke imprecisely and had actually spoken to Shandro and his deputy minister.
Pancholi said it is not appropriate for a premier to speak to prosecutors about cases or exert pressure on justice ministers in a healthy democracy.