Premier’s office says all communication with attorney general has been appropriate
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith pressured the attorney general and his office to intervene in COVID-related court cases, according to multiple sources familiar with the interactions.
Exchanges between the premier's office and Justice Minister Tyler Shandro's office over several months included what sources characterized as attempts to influence cases.
"I would classify it as inappropriate," one source close to the situation said. CBC News has agreed not to name them because of potential professional repercussions.
Smith would ask for updates on cases or inquire whether it would be possible to abandon them, they said.
This specifically included the prosecution of Artur Pawlowski, a pastor charged with two counts of criminal mischief and a charge under Alberta's Critical Infrastructure Defence Act related to the Coutts border blockade.
Another source with knowledge of the situation confirmed Smith committed to taking that case to Shandro with the intent to make the charges go away.
CBC News has agreed not to name the sources, as they were not authorized to discuss these matters and out of concern they could lose their jobs.
Communications appropriate: premier's office
The premier's office says Smith's public statements explained her exploration of legal options to grant amnesty for pandemic charges.
"After taking office, the Premier and her staff had several discussions with the Minister of Justice and Justice department public servants, requesting an explanation of what policy options were available for this purpose. After receiving detailed legal advice and recommendations from the Minister not to proceed with pursuing options for granting amnesty, the Premier followed that legal advice," the premier's office said in a statement.
"All communications between the Premier, her staff, the Minister of Justice and Ministry of Justice public servants have been appropriate and made through the proper channels."
In a subsequent statement Wednesday afternoon, Smith called for CBC to retract its story from last week in which sources said the premier's office had emailed Crown prosecutors about Coutts-related cases. She called that story "outrageous" and "defamatory," adding that CBC had not seen the emails in question.
Smith has said publicly she asked the attorney general and his deputy minister to consider whether COVID-related cases were in the public interest to pursue and whether there was a reasonable chance of conviction before proceeding.
However, sources confirmed some of these conversations went beyond those considerations and veered into pressure.
"They're constantly pushing," a source said, adding that the minister's office has been resisting.
"I would interpret that as pressure."
The justice minister's office denies the premier issued direction.
"While Premier Smith requested briefings and they were provided, at no point in time was there any direction provided to the Attorney General by the Premier or her office. The Alberta Crown Prosecution Service acts independently and at no time has any political decision affected ongoing prosecutions," Ethan Lecavalier-Kidney, the minister's press secretary, said in a statement.
Relationship under scrutiny
The relationship between the minister's office and the premier's office over the approach to COVID-related court cases has been subject of recent public scrutiny.
An interview between Ezra Levant, who runs the right-wing media company Rebel News, and Pawlowski suggests there were efforts behind the scenes to get the government to help make the pastor's charges disappear.
Last December, on the morning of what was supposed to be his trial on offences connected to breaching public health orders in Calgary, Pawlowski's charges were stayed.
"Do you think someone called [the prosecutor] off? Do you think some big boss phoned her up that morning and said 'Hey prosecutor, you're throwing in the towel'?" Levant asked Pawlowski in an interview posted to Rebel's website on Dec. 20.
Pawlowski — who goes to trial on the Coutts-related charges next Thursday — responded.
"We have been working in the background on the political level, trying to talk to the UCP government to call their dogs off because this is pure vendetta," he told Levant.
"Maybe someone smarter than the Minister Shandro said 'Hey, this is not in our interest to wage the war against the ministers and pastors.'"
Pawlowski's lawyers declined to comment on Wednesday.
"As this is a live situation that could conceivably impact trial next week, we are not in a position to comment on this situation right now," said Sarah Miller in an email to CBC News.
Levant has been instrumental in fundraising for Pawlowski's legal fees and publicly campaigning to get the pastor's Coutts-related charges dropped ahead of his Feb. 2 trial.
Smith herself was on the receiving end of a pressure campaign involving Levant earlier in the fall.
In October, following an in-person meeting, Levant advocated for the premier to drop COVID-related charges. He outlined what he thought she should do in a lengthy email to Smith's office. Levant confirmed the contents of the email and the meeting with the premier.
"The Premier was interested in any information that I could provide her about the situation on the ground and the mechanisms available to her to provide leadership on these issues," reads part of the email, obtained by CBC News.
It argued why some charges should be stayed or withdrawn and why the attorney general should intervene — specifically mentioning Pawlowski in the correspondence. CBC News learned the email was then forwarded from the premier's office to Shandro's office.
"I expect that with the proper guidance and direction from the Premier's office, the prosecutions related to the Coutts protest (the non-violent cases, without firearms), other anti-lockdown protests, or offences under the Public Health Act … can all be withdrawn, stayed or otherwise discontinued," it reads.
In response to a request for comment Wednesday, Levant posted the letter on his website.
"I'm very proud of that letter, and I stand by every word of it," said Levant.
He said he has been public in his calls for pressure to be put on the attorney general to withdraw charges connected to the pandemic.
"I have no idea what Smith did or didn't do with the letter I wrote to her."
CBC News recently reported, based on sources, that a staff member in the premier's office had emailed Crown prosecutors several times last fall about ongoing cases related to Coutts border blockade charges. CBC News has not viewed those emails.
The premier said she had no knowledge of the matters and launched an email search, which her office said yielded no evidence of email contact.
The government later added that deleted emails would only be retained for 30 days, which would reach back to Dec. 22.
Two weeks ago, Smith backed down from a promise to seek official pardons for COVID-19 health violators, saying premiers don't have that power.
The premier spent several days clarifying conflicting comments on her contact with Crown prosecutors about these cases. She initially stated she had talked directly to prosecutors before then saying she had only spoken with her justice minister.
Smith said she wanted prosecutors to consider the reasonable likelihood of conviction and public interest but also that COVID charges are unique.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elise von Scheel is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Calgary and the producer of the West of Centre podcast. You can get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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