Hazy ethics in Edmonton

Opposition calls for more rules on government behaviour

Opposition parties refuse to let “tobaccogate” go. Alberta ethics commissioner Neil Wilkinson’s investigation released December 4 concluded that Premier Alison Redford and Agriculture Minister Verlyn Olson both lied about their role in selecting the premier’s ex-husband’s law firm to represent the province in an upcoming anti-tobacco lawsuit potentially worth billions of dollars. However Wilkinson is satisfied Redford did not act in a conflict of interest.

Opposition MLAs are not happy. They say the investigation report that was made public just one day before the legislature ended its fall session is riddled with problems.

“It is truly disturbing that Mr. Wilkinson did not find a conflict of interest on Premier Redford’s part when he found that ‘clearly she took part in a decision’ to award the government’s tobacco litigation contract to a law firm with close personal ties to herself and the PC party” Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith wrote in a public statement.

Wilkinson’s report also shows he did not see a key government memo about the contract bid; did not interview Olson despite the fact Olson repeatedly stated that he and not Redford decided which law firm would win the contract; asked only five per cent of his questions in face-to-face interviews (the other 95 per cent were issued in writing); and used the concluding section of his report to chastise Smith and Liberal Leader Raj Sherman for maligning the premier by requesting the investigation.

“It’s unsurprising given the PC party’s been in power for 42 years and has put people with close ties into important positions such as the position of the ethics commissioner” says Wildrose justice critic Shayne Saskiw.

The case is now closed. It cannot be appealed and the complaints cannot be renewed. Commissioner Wilkinson’s term ended on November 23 so the Wildrose Party’s demand that he be removed from office is moot.

But Saskiw says the tobaccogate fight is “not over.”

The Wildrose Party wants to see the briefing note Wilkinson says legal privilege prevented him from examining. It also vows to file a complaint against Olson for lying in the legislature about who decided which law firm would get the tobacco lawsuit.

Other parties seem more interested in addressing the issues with Alberta’s government ethics rules this case has brought to the forefront.

“There’s no official mechanism that remains at this point for us to go further other than to raise it in the political arena” says NDP MLA Rachel Notley. She says one major problem with the conflict of interest legislation is it is so weakly written that ex-spouses do not count as family so a politician can award a business contract to an ex-spouse as Redford did without breaking the rules.

Another problem is that all-party committees tasked with strengthening the law and choosing independent officers such as the ethics commissioner are always made up of a majority of PC MLAs meaning the PC party alone can decide who monitors ethical breaches and how they are dealt with.

“If I were the government I would work very hard to actually get somebody who enjoys the confidence of all of the members of the search committee rather than using their majority to push through somebody over the objections of the committee members” Notley says.

Saskiw agrees: “It’s very disheartening knowing that as an opposition MLA you have to give your private personal information to someone who’s got such close partisan connections so for an important position like this we really should have all-party support to get the most outstanding qualified ethical person into that role.”

Sherman has also suggested independent officers such as the ethics commissioner privacy commissioner and auditor general be appointed only with the unanimous consent of an all-party selection committee.

Members of the legislature were aware of these issues before Wilkinson’s report. Two weeks before he presented his tobaccogate findings an all-party committee wrapped up a review of the Conflict of Interests Act. Notley and Saskiw were among the five opposition party members who sat on that committee. The other 14 members were PCs.

“We made a number of recommendations to change the act and one of the things that we pointed out was that we actually have no law around ethics in Alberta. People think we do because we have an ethics commissioner. What we have is a very very narrow set of rules for conflict of interest around financial interests” says Notley.

The majority of the committee rejected recommendations by the minority that were intended to strengthen the law. Suggestions included: lengthening the cooling-off period which prevents politicians and senior staff from entering into business with the government after leaving government employment; prohibiting an ethics commissioner from waiving the cooling-off periods (as Wilkinson has done during his tenure); including government CEOs in the act; and writing a definition of “improper” into the act. All were dismissed.