NDP requests ethics commissioner investigation into awarding of $905K sole-source contract

In a letter sent Thursday afternoon, NDP MLA Heather Sweet asked Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler to determine whether Allan’s awarding of the contract breached the Public Service Act.

Inquiry commissioner Steve Allan personally awarded contract to law firm where his son is partner

Steve Allan, who is heading Alberta’s public inquiry into allegations of foreign-funded reputational attacks on the province’s oil and gas industry, granted a sole-source contract for legal advice to inquiry to a law firm in which his son is a partner. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

The Opposition NDP has asked the province's ethics watchdog to investigate whether the commissioner for Alberta's public inquiry into alleged foreign-funded attacks on the oil industry broke any rules by personally handing a $905,000 sole-source contract to his son's law firm.

Earlier Thursday, CBC News revealed that Commissioner Steve Allan granted the contract for legal advice to Dentons, despite the fact his son, Toby, is a partner at the Calgary firm.

Allan did not respond to repeated interview requests over the past several days. In a text, he said his son will not benefit in any way from the contract, though he did not address the specific issue of whether his son, as a partner, would share in Dentons' profits, a common arrangement at law firms.

In a letter sent Thursday afternoon, NDP MLA Heather Sweet asked Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler to determine whether Allan's awarding of the contract breached the Public Service Act.

"As a partner at Dentons, it is likely that Commissioner Allan's son could profit from this contract, directly awarded to [his firm] by his father in his role as Commissioner, which creates both a real and perceived conflict of interest," Sweet wrote.

Under the province's Public Service Act, Allan is considered a "designated office holder" because the lieutenant governor appointed him to his government role. A designated office holder breaches the act if he takes part in a decision while knowing it might further the private interests of himself, a direct associate, or his child.

"It is my belief that this matter requires your attention in order to assure Albertans that their tax dollars are being spent in an ethical and transparent way, that serves their interests rather than being used to potentially further the private interests of any individual," Sweet's letter said.

Alberta Justice says no conflict

Alberta's database of sole-source contracts show the $905,000 contract was issued on July 15, 11 days after Premier Jason Kenney announced Allan would head the $2.5 million Public Inquiry Into Funding of Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns. The contract with Dentons is set to run until March 31, 2020.

It is not known exactly what work Dentons is doing under the contract. CBC News asked Alberta Justice for the contract. A spokesperson said it can't be released because it is subject to solicitor-client privilege. 

Allan told CBC News in his text that the contract was "vetted with government and Dentons before engagement was finalized."

In an emailed statement Wednesday evening, a spokesperson for Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer, who is a former partner at Dentons, said ministry officials were "not aware of any conflict that would prohibit the Inquiry from contracting with Dentons for services."

The statement also said "large law firms are regularly required to construct ethical walls between clients in order to ensure no conflicts of interest. This is standard practice and we assume it would be followed in this case if necessary."

But Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, told CBC News "the issue here is not a conflict of interest between Dentons' clients — the issue is Steve Allan's conflict of interest in handing a sole-source contract to a law firm where his son is a partner."

Conacher said this was an obvious conflict of interest. He said Allan should have had no part in awarding a contract to a firm with which he has such a close personal connection.

"There's more than just an appearance of bias, there is straight-up bias, if Steve Allen is handing this contract to his son's law firm," said Conacher, who has taught courses on law and politics at the University of Ottawa.

"Whether his son profits or not, it is his son's company and the company profits."

In an email Wednesday night, Allan said 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.

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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Charles Rusnell, Jennie Russell

Former investigative reporters

Jennie Russell and Charles Rusnell 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.