EDMONTON — Alberta's ethics commissioner says Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer did not break the rules when he hired Steve Allan to run a public inquiry into whether foreign money is bankrolling anti-oil protests in Canada.
Marguerite Trussler, in a report issued Monday, said Allan was on balance a good choice in a small pool of qualified candidates.
The commissioner also noted that while Allan and Schweitzer knew each other in passing and Allan had contributed to Schweitzer's political campaigns, he gave money to other parties as well.
"They were simply acquaintances in Calgary who occasionally communicated about issues such as economic strategy and flood mitigation," said Trussler in the report, adding that Allan had seen his home destroyed in the 2013 Calgary flood.
"They were not friends and their relationship was not close."
Trussler said the roster of quality candidates with forensic accounting experience who were able to work within the inquiry's then-$2.5-million budget was limited.
Schweitzer's spokesman, Jonah Mozeson, said in a statement Monday, "I'm glad the ethics commissioner confirmed what we always knew was true: no conflict.
"It's unfortunate that some choose to ignore facts to tar their political opponents."
Trussler launched the investigation after a complaint was laid late last year by a third party, Democracy Watch.
The complaint centred around Schweitzer's role in hiring Allan, who had an office in Schweitzer's former Calgary law firm, Dentons.
Allan was hired in July 2019 to head up the public inquiry to fulfil an election promise of Premier Jason Kenney, who has said he believes foreign funders are pulling the strings on domestic protesters to undermine Alberta's oil and gas industry.
Trussler noted that Schweitzer was put in charge of recruiting because public inquiries fall under his mandate as justice minister.
She said Allan had helped out on a fundraiser for Schweitzer's failed bid for the leadership of the United Conservatives, which was won by Kenney in 2017.
Schweitzer, a one-time partner at Dentons, severed all connection to the firm after being named justice minister in April 2019.
Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, questioned Trussler's conclusions.
"The biggest glaring error is that the ethics commissioner sets out all the different things that Steve Allan did for Doug Schweitzer to help him get elected and then she ignores almost all of those things when concluding that he did not cross the line and it was not enough to create a conflict of interest for Schweitzer," said Conacher in a statement.
"You can't just ignore facts in your own report when making your ruling."
Trussler said her mandate was not to investigate Allan, but she questioned his decision to hire Dentons to do legal work for the inquiry because Allan has a close friend who worked there. Allan's son is a Dentons partner and the law firm gave Allan free office space after his home was destroyed.
"It does stretch credibility that Mr. Allan did not consider whether or not there may possibly be a conflict of interest in his engaging of Dentons as counsel for the inquiry," wrote Trussler.
Allan could not be immediately reached for comment.
Allan's report was due this week, but was extended by the government until Oct. 30. Also, an extra $1 million was added to the inquiry's $2.5-million budget.
The inquiry has been the focus of critics, who say it is not fact finding but out to prove a pre-determined conclusion and, in doing so, is harming the reputations of people who legitimately and lawfully question the expansion of oil and gas operations.
Late last year, the environmental law firm Ecojustice launched legal action asking a court to strike down the inquiry, saying the process is politically motivated, prejudges conclusions and is outside provincial jurisdiction.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 6, 2020
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press