Wildrose presses Notley government to investigate tobacco-litigation scandal

The Opposition Wildrose Thursday ramped up pressure on the government of Premier Rachel Notley to order an investigation into how the contract to litigate Alberta's $10-billion tobacco lawsuit was awarded under former premier Alison Redford.

MLA Jason Nixon says auditor general should investigate

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley (CBC)

The Opposition Wildrose Thursday ramped up pressure on the government of Premier Rachel Notley to order an investigation into how the contract to litigate Alberta's $10-billion tobacco lawsuit was awarded under former premier Alison Redford.

Wildrose critic Jason Nixon twice asked Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley what she intends to do about revelations contained in stories published earlier this week by CBC News that the process of choosing a legal consortium to represent Alberta had been manipulated.

Ganley responded to both questions with a pre-written statement that merely said the NDP is "committed to ensuring that we move forward in a way that ensures transparency and accountability on the part of government."

Notley gave much the same answer on Wednesday. She said she is being briefed on the issue and her office is looking into what, if any, investigation is necessary.

Public accounts committee will be asked to investigate

In a move that clearly surprised Speaker Bob Wanner, Nixon directed his next question to Wildrose finance critic Derek Fildebrandt, who chairs the legislature's public accounts committee. Nixon asked Fildebrandt if the committee would put the tobacco-litigation issue on the committee's agenda.

Fildebrandt said he would ask the committee to put the matter on the agenda Tuesday, and ask committee members to call officials from Alberta Justice to answer questions at a later meeting. The committee is dominated by NDP members and is not obliged to vote in favour of Fildebrandt's proposal.

Outside the legislature, Nixon said he is "disappointed" Ganley has not already called for an independent investigation.

CBC News first revealed in November 2012 that Redford, while justice minister in 2010, had personally chosen International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers (ITRL), a legal consortium to which she had close personal and political ties.

Wildrose critic Jason Nixon is pushing the government to investigate former premier Alison Redford's handling of the $10-billion tobacco lawsuit contract. (CBC)

The story caused one of the most raucous debates in the legislature's recent history, with opposition MLAs storming out of the legislature at one point after their questions were blocked by the Speaker.

NDP MLA Brian Mason, who is now a cabinet minister, called Redford a liar outside the legislature even though he knew he was not protected by privilege.

Nixon noted the sharp contrast between the outrage expressed by the NDP while in opposition with its noncommittal response now.

"They have the ultimate power to be able to deal with this situation," Nixon said. "Minister Ganley can deal with this immediately in a much faster way than any opposition MLA can.

"So if they were concerned about it in opposition, now they are in a position where they can fix it."

Assessment changed

The consortium chosen for the potentially lucrative tobacco litigation contract is led by JSS Barristers, a Calgary law firm with close ties to Redford. 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 Redford's transition team when she won the Progressive Conservative leadership campaign and became premier in 2011.

Internal Alberta Justice documents leaked to CBC show ITRL had been ranked last by a government review committee and effectively eliminated from consideration. It instead recommended Redford choose from two other consortiums it deemed equal but superior to ITRL.

But the committee abruptly changed its assessment and recommendation after it sent its initial recommendation to Redford's executive assistant. The committee inserted ITRL back into the competition, removed its last-place ranking and recommended Redford choose the "appropriate" of the three competing consortiums.

Less than a week later, Redford chose ITRL, saying they represented the "best choice."

There is nothing in the documents that indicates Redford saw the first assessment and she said she was never told by the ministry that ITRL had been ranked last. There is also nothing in the documents that indicates why the original briefing note was modified or who made the dramatic changes.

Nixon said Alberta's auditor general needs to be called in to investigate.

"We are going to continue to call on the government to investigate, and we are going to use our power as opposition, with the public accounts committee, to attempt to shine some light on this serious situation," Nixon said.