Thomas Lukaszuk's $20K cell bill triggered by cabinet minister's family dispute

Alberta former deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk, now a Conservative leadership candidate, says he was dealing with legal issues related to a dispute between a cabinet minister and a sibling when he ran up a $20,000 cellphone roaming bill while vacationing in Poland in 2012.

Opposition demands former deputy premier reimburse government

Thomas Lukszuak is one of three candidates running for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party. He's defending a $20,000 cellphone bill he ran up in 2012 during his time as Alberta deputy premier. (CBC)

Alberta former deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk, now a Conservative leadership candidate, says he was dealing with legal issues related to a dispute between a cabinet minister and a sibling when he ran up a $20,000 cellphone roaming bill while vacationing in Poland in 2012.

CBC News has viewed the cabinet minister's family law court file, which is the subject of a publication ban and forbids identifying any of the individuals involved.

But the court documents show the cabinet minister's sibling had sought an emergency restraining order against the minister in relation to a family dispute. The restraining order has been removed. At one point, police were called in relation to the dispute.

In an interview with CBC News on Wednesday, Lukaszuk continued to insist he was dealing with what he has described as "an urgent government matter."

Lukaszuk said he received a phone call in the middle of the night in Alberta from "a very distressed cabinet minister, who felt the cabinet minister was in danger. Police were on the way. It was a very urgent situation."

The then deputy premier said he called a lawyer for the cabinet minister.

"The next day, I engaged in both telephone conversations and video conferencing conversations with the premier's office," Lukaszuk said. "It was determined that we need to make sure that the cabinet minister is not in any danger, that if there is any protection services that need to be afforded, that was looked into.

"We wanted to make sure that the cabinet minister has the legal representation that the cabinet minister needs," he said. "And documents were exchanged relevant to the essence of the actual issue, what was it that precipitated this — at that point in time, apparent danger.

"It turned out that this was a matter that did not touch government," Lukaszuk said. "The cabinet minister retained independent, privately legal counsel. And that was the end of the matter."

It's not known why Court of Queen's Bench Associate Chief Justice John Rooke granted the publication ban. 

Urgent government business

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said it's clear Lukaszuk wasn't dealing with an urgent government matter.

"These guys don't know the difference between government business and party business," Smith said.

"Now it may well be a good thing for one of their cabinet ministers from a political perspective not to have a scandal like this go out into the public, but it's certainly not government business," she said

Smith said the Progressive Conservative Party should repay the $20,000 cost of the communications. But even if it does, Smith said she thinks there will be "consequences" for Lukaszuk at the ballot box during the looming Tory leadership vote Sept. 6.

Derek Fildebrandt of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation also said Lukaszuk was not dealing with government business.

"This was an urgent personal matter for the minister in question," he said. "There might be political fallout, but it is not government business. It is party business. It is political business."

Like Smith, Fildebrandt said the Conservative Party should pick up the tab for the $20,000 cellphone roaming charge.

Leaked documents

The issue arose Monday after someone leaked the internal government records containing the $20,000 bill to an Edmonton Sun reporter. According to the Sun, the documents came from inside government via courier, using a Calgary resident's name. The resident had no knowledge of the couriered documents and has filed a complaint with the Calgary Police Service.

Lukaszuk has alleged the documents were strategically leaked to damage him in the midst of the Conservative leadership campaign. The campaigns of both Jim Prentice and Ric McIver, the other leadership candidates, have denied leaking the documents.

Early in the campaign, former federal Conservative cabinet minister Prentice had widely been considered the front-runner. But pundits say a series of gaffes by the Prentice campaign, and reportedly low membership sales, have created a closer race than had been expected between the three contenders..

Within hours of the Sun breaking the news of the massive cellphone bill, Lukaszuk issued an apology, saying he made a mistake by not checking the data plan.

But he insisted he was on government business and buttressed his claim by releasing a letter from an Edmonton law firm, which said it had been retained after extensive communications regarding "legal matters which affected the government."

Lukaszuk said he will not repay the money because he was doing government work.

"It's easy to analyze something that happened two years ago," he said. "You receive a phone call from a very distressed subordinate, saying that, ‘I need help, I need assistance. What do I do?' That's what you do. You help out, you make sure that the initial urgency is taken care of.