Edmonton·Reporter's Notebook

University of Calgary spent $90,000 on legal fees related to CBC request for information

A misfiled document illustrates just how far institutions, and people in positions of power, will go to try to evade the transparency and accountability that FOIP provides, says CBC investigative journalist Charles Rusnell.

Documents exposed questionable political donations

The University of Calgary took months to provide documents requested by the CBC. (CBC)

The file folder labelled "Tips" holds all the tips sent to CBC Investigates on paper, mostly anonymously, through the mail.

But serendipitously, when I pulled the file out of a drawer to check something in it a couple days ago, I found a document that had been misfiled in 2012 and, I am embarrassed to admit, forgotten.
Charles Rusnell is an investigative reporter at CBC Edmonton. (Twitter)

The document's discovery is timely because yesterday my colleague Jennie Russell and I gave a seminar — scheduled weeks ago — on how to effectively use Freedom of Information and Privacy (FOIP) requests at the national conference of the Canadian Association of Journalists here in Edmonton.

This document illustrates the efforts made by institutions, and people in positions of power, in the face of the transparency and accountability that FOIP provides. 

Back in 2011 and 2012, using dozens of freedom of information requests, I produced a series of stories that exposed the long-standing practice of illegal political donations to the then-ruling Alberta Progressive Conservative party by publicly-funded institutions such as municipalities, school boards, and, in particular, post-secondary institutions.

One of the post-secondary institutions, the University of Calgary, took months to finally provide the documents I had requested. What they revealed was troubling.

They showed prominent Conservative Calgary lawyer Joe Lougheed, son of former premier Peter Lougheed, who acts as the university's paid lobbyist, had bought tickets to Tory fundraisers on behalf of the university, and then billed the university extra hours of legal work, that he had not worked, to pay for them.

Lawyer stands up to political donations

This misuse of public money went on for years until in 2008 the university got a new in-house counsel, Charlene Anderson.

The documents showed Anderson questioned a legal bill from Lougheed for $4,500 for "Government Relations Matters," and she warned Lougheed she believed the practice was designed to "circumvent" election financing laws and could be illegal.

Lougheed pushed back, telling Anderson in an email that "the bill in question relates to the Premier's Dinner (fundraiser).

"As the U of C is precluded from buying the table directly, we buy the table for the U of C, write off the disbursement, and then simply charge for an equivalent amount of time. This is a practice we have followed for a couple years now. This is the first time this has been questioned by you."

In a subsequent email, Lougheed told Anderson he thought she was "splitting hairs" about his practice of billing for fees in order to cover the cost of political donations.

But Anderson did not back down.

"You are correct that this was the first time this 'practice' has been questioned by me," she wrote in an email to Lougheed. "However, I questioned, and objected to it, the moment I became aware of it. I cannot pay this account nor can I condone this practice.

"This practice, in my opinion, exposes the university to unnecessary risks — legally, financially and reputationally. The university cannot pay for services that were not rendered, nor should we circumvent the rules that preclude us from buying a table."

Lougheed eventually backed down, telling Anderson in an email that the practice would end immediately. The university provided a statement from Lougheed with the documents, in which he said the 2008 disagreement over his billing for political donations was essentially a misunderstanding due to a poorly drafted email.

"I had intended to explain that the March invoice was related to government relations, and the cost of the tickets to the Premier's Dinner was not charged to the University of Calgary," Lougheed said.

$90,000 in legal fees

After the story appeared in June 2012, we got a tip that the university had spent a small fortune on legal fees preparing its response to my original request.

So we filed another FOIP request, received the documents, which we misfiled until a few days ago.

But better late than never. Because the documents show University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon personally signed off on more than $90,000 in legal fees from Calgary law firm Norton Rose.

The statements from the law firm, dated from the end of March to July of 2012, specifically state they were for legal work related to an access-to-information request from CBC.

Charlene Anderson, the lawyer who stood up to Joe Lougheed, quietly left the university after our story appeared in June 2012. 

Because she declined my interview requests, I don't know exactly why she left. Anderson was subsequently named a judge of the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta.

As for Lougheed, he's no longer a lobbyist for the University of Calgary. Now he's chairman of the board of the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, whose former director of government relations actively solicited an illegal political donation from another post-secondary institution, a fact revealed through another FOIP request

@charlesrusnell charles.rusnell@cbc.ca