Several weeks after receiving formal requests from opposition parties, Alberta’s Ethics Commissioner has confirmed he has begun to investigate a possible conflict of interest in choosing law firms to represent the province in a lawsuit against tobacco companies.
Both the Official Opposition Wildrose Party and the Liberal Party released their letters from Ethics Commissioner Neil Wilkinson on Monday – both confirming an investigation had begun.
It’s alleged that Premier Alison Redford, in her previous role as Minister of Justice, had hand-picked her former husband’s law firm as part of a consortium of law firms to represent the province in a $10 billion lawsuit against tobacco companies.
The issue made headlines in late November, when members from the Wildrose Party, New Democrat Party and the Liberal Party bombarded the premier with accusations and questions after news of the possible conflict of interest came to light.
In a letter to the Ethics Commissioner, dated Nov. 28, Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said Redford was responsible for selecting a law firm to handle the tobacco litigation, a contract estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars:
“Ms. Redford chose to award that contract to a consortium of law firms that includes that of her ex-husband, Robert Hawkes. It has been widely publicized that Mr. Hawkes was Ms. Redford’s transition team leader after she won the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta and became premier.”
The official opposition party charged the premier with contempt of parliament over the issue, accusing the premier of misleading the house when she said she wasn’t Justice Minister when the final decision was made.
In a statement issued Monday, Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson said the law firm, JSS Barristers, had the most political and personal ties to Redford than others in the country.
“If this is not a breach of our ethics legislation, then we may as well just throw out the entire act,” Anderson said in a press release. “This is the very definition of a conflict of interest, and the premier has shown a disturbing lack of judgment in this matter.”
The Wildrose Party also released its letter, addressed to Wilkinson, outlining the evidence they had collected on the matter – in response to the commissioner’s request for evidence to be used in the investigation.
New Democrat Leader Brian Mason also responded to the announcement, saying he was pleased to hear of the decision.
“While the premier repeatedly claimed she wasn’t involved in the decision, all of the evidence suggests otherwise,” Mason said in a press release. “Albertans need an independent investigation to have confidence that this government is acting in their interests, and not in the interests of Tory insiders.”
On Monday, when the announcement of the investigation was made, Minister of Justice and Solicitor General Jonathan Denis released his own statement on the matter, saying the premier welcomed the investigation by the Ethics Commissioner.
Denis went on to say a contract was signed with International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers in June 2011 – which falls four months after Redford stepped down from her cabinet position.
The Justice Minister went on to outline why that particular consortium was chosen, saying the province was offered the lowest cost from that group over all other bids, included a number of lawyers who had already successfully litigated and settled with big tobacco, and had offered to work exclusively for the province.
For her part, Redford has maintained she had stepped down from that portfolio to run for premier at the time her ex-husband’s law firm was chosen.
The province released documents showing Minister Verlyn Olsen had signed off on the deal.
Only a few days after the charge was made by the opposition, Speaker Gene Zwozdesky ruled Redford was not in contempt of parliament, and the allegations were dismissed.