Wildrose calls on NDP to make Alberta tobacco litigation information public

MLA Jason Nixon, the Wildrose critic for government accountability, is calling on the NDP to clear the air on how the contract to litigate Alberta's $10-billion tobacco lawsuit was awarded under former premier Alison Redford.

Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley says awarding of contract will be reviewed

Former premier Alison Redford said the Justice Department had never told her that the legal consortium ITRL had been ranked third before being awarded the tobacco litigation contract. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Wildrose critic for government accountability is calling on the NDP to clear the air on how the contract to litigate Alberta's $10-billion tobacco lawsuit was awarded under former premier Alison Redford.

"I think Albertans deserve to know all the details associated with that," Jason Nixon said Monday.

"And I think it's in the NDP's court to make sure all that information is made public, so we can understand what the previous administration was doing in regards to the tobacco litigation."

The contract was awarded in December 2010 to International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers (ITRL), a consortium of legal firms led by JSS Barristers, a Calgary law firm with close ties to Redford, who was justice minister at the time.  A partner in JSS Barristers is Redford's former husband, Robert Hawkes.

Redford and Hawkes divorced more than 20 years ago. But Hawkes remained a strong political supporter. He led her transition team when she won the Progressive Conservative leadership campaign and became premier in 2011.

Internal Alberta Justice documents obtained exclusively by CBC News show that a week before the consortium was personally selected by Redford as the "best choice" to represent Alberta, it had been ranked last of three by an independent review committee and effectively eliminated from consideration.

The committee instead recommended that Redford choose between two other consortiums: Bennett Jones, and the paired firms of Field Law and McLennan Ross.

But internal briefing notes reveal the review committee's decision was effectively overruled, shortly after it was sent to a Redford staffer. ITRL was inexplicably inserted back into the competition, its last place ranking was removed, and within a week Redford chose ITRL.

There is nothing in the documents that indicates Redford saw the first briefing note. There is also nothing in the documents that indicates why the original briefing note was modified, or who made the dramatic changes. 

Justice Department to review how contract was awarded

Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said her department will review how the contract was awarded. 

"I will get briefed up and we will review the contract," Ganley said. "I mean at this point, when you're talking about altering counsel mid-litigation, that tends to be really expensive, so I think that needs to be weighed in consideration."

Ganley said she will listen to the advice of department officials when they come up with lists in the future. She said she wasn't worried that the contract had been awarded to ITRL.

"I don't think there were concerns that firm couldn't carry the litigation, but we'll certainly look into that and ensure Albertans are getting value for their money," she said.

Later, Ganley's department issued a written statement saying the decision to hire the consortium was made by a previous government using a different process that included ministerial involvement in the selection.

The policy for securing outside counsel has since changed, as it now ensures criteria have been met in selecting counsel, the statement said. Signing authority for contracting outside counsel rests with the deputy attorney general and/or the legal services division, the statement added.

Redford did not respond to an interview request, but instead issued a brief statement through her lawyer to CBC News.

Never told of ranking, says Redford

"Any allegation that the department informed me that ITRL was ranked last among the three firms bidding is false," Redford said, adding that the awarding of the contract had been thoroughly investigated by Alberta's ethics commissioner.

Redford resigned as premier in March 2014 and as a member of the legislature in August of the same year after a series of scandals.

Alberta's $10-billion lawsuit against the tobacco industry — the largest in the province's history — is an attempt to recoup some of the health-care costs associated with smoking.

If successful, it could provide a multibillion-dollar windfall for the province's depleted coffers — and potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in contingency fees for ITRL.

Alberta is one of 10 provinces with tobacco lawsuits.

With files from the CBC's Jennie Russell and Charles Rusnell