United Conservative Party Leader Danielle Smith makes an election campaign announcement in Calgary, Thursday, May 11, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Ethics probe finds Alberta Premier Danielle Smith violated conflict of interest rule

Alberta’s ethics commissioner has found United Conservative Party leader Premier Danielle Smith contravened the Conflict of Interest Act over a conversation she had with her justice minister about a high-profile COVID-19 case.

Marguerite Trussler’s report, released Thursday, comes in the waning days of a bitter election campaign with voters going to the polls on May 29.

Trussler said the violation had to do with discussions Smith had with then-justice minister and attorney general Tyler Shandro related to criminal charges against Calgary pastor Artur Pawlowski.

Earlier this month, a judge in Lethbridge, Alta., found Pawlowski guilty of mischief and other charges for his role in a protest over COVID-19 restrictions that snarled Alberta’s main border crossing into the U.S. in early 2022.

Trussler said she had to decide whether Smith’s call to Shandro on Jan. 6 was appropriate.

“The purpose of Premier Smith’s call was to influence a decision of the Crown to prosecute Mr. Pawlowski,” Trussler wrote.

“She asked the attorney general if there was something that could be done about the charges and could they help Mr. Pawlowski. She was concerned about the political optics of the press conference Mr. Pawlowski was planning.”

Trussler said a premier discussing an ongoing criminal case with an attorney general is not acceptable.

“I believe that Minister Shandro must have felt considerable pressure and concern for his tenure as minister as a result of the call,” she wrote.

“In the whole scheme of things, it is a threat to democracy to interfere with the administration of justice. It is the first step toward the type of judicial system often found in a non-democratic or pseudo-democratic country where members of and friends of those in power are shielded from prosecution or are acquitted by the courts on the instructions of those in power.”

Smith said in a statement sent through her party Thursday that she has always wanted to find a path to amnesty for those charged with non-violent COVID-related offences and violations during the pandemic.

She said she was seeking input from Shandro, who is a lawyer, on possible amnesty and accepted his advice. She said the conversation went no further.

“I invited the commissioner to give me and future premiers the benefit of some guidance on how to advance sensitive policy issues similar to this with the minister of justice if she thought there was a more appropriate way,” Smith said.

Trussler said she’s not recommending sanctions against Smith at this point but reserves the right to do so once the legislature is back in session.

She does recommend new legislature members attend training about the roles of the three branches of government.

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