CALGARY — Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says she will no longer speak about her involvement in how COVID-19 court cases are being prosecuted.
Smith says her United Conservative Party government is considering a defamation lawsuit and, because of that, she has been advised by counsel not to comment.
A notice of defamation letter dated Sunday says lawyers for the premier want the CBC to retract and apologize for its story in January that stated a member of her staff sent emails to the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service challenging how it was handling cases from COVID-19 protests at the United States-Canada border crossing at Coutts, Alta.
The CBC repeated Monday that it stands by its reporting.
“I have been clear that neither I, nor anyone within my staff, have contacted any Crown prosecutors as has been alleged. Indeed, Alberta's Crown Prosecution Service has confirmed this to be true. To continue saying or suggesting otherwise is malicious," Smith said Monday at a news conference in Calgary.
“As this matter is now likely to be subject of legal defamation proceedings, I will not be commenting about it further as per the advice of counsel.”
The news conference was the first opportunity for reporters to ask Smith about a leaked cellphone recording played released last week by the Opposition NDP.
In the 11-minute recording, estimated to have taken place in early January, Smith is heard offering to help Calgary pastor Artur Pawlowski in his criminal case related to his involvement with the Coutts blockade in early 2022.
The premier is also heard telling Pawlowski that the charges against him were based on political motives and she commiserates with him over Crown prosecutor tactics.
On Monday, reporters asked Smith about what role justice officials had in the call, what effect her comments on trial tactics may have had and whether, as premier, she has contacted other accused to discuss their cases while those cases were before the courts.
Smith repeated variations of the same answer she gave in statements last week — that she was acting within the scope of her job and on the advice of justice officials.
Smith’s office has declined to clarify whether the details of Smith’s call were relayed to the prosecutor in the Pawlowski case before his trial in early February.
Opposition NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir said Smith is ducking responsibility and public accountability by hiding behind the threat of a lawsuit.
He said the premier abused the power of her office in Pawlowski's case. Sabir renewed his call for an independent investigation.
“She is the one who said she is dissatisfied with Crown practices in Artur Pawlowski’s case,” Sabir said.
“She should come out of hiding. She should answer media questions. She should answer Albertans."
Pawlowski went on trial in Lethbridge, Alta., on charges of breaching a release order and mischief for allegedly inciting people to block public property at the border crossing. He is also charged under the Alberta Critical Infrastructure Defence Act with wilfully damaging or destroying essential infrastructure.
The judge has yet to render a verdict.
Pawlowski’s lawyer, Sarah Miller, has declined to comment on her client's phone call with the premier, noting the matter is still before the courts.
Smith has long been critical of COVID-19 masking, gathering and vaccine mandate rules, questioning whether the measures were needed to fight the pandemic. She has called them intolerable violations of personal freedoms.
She had promised to seek to pardons for protesters of COVID-19 health restrictions. After becoming premier, she said she learned she does not have the power to grant pardons. She also publicly condemned the charges as rooted in political bias.
The controversy erupted when Smith told reporters Jan. 12 that she had abandoned seeking amnesty for people accused of violating the temporary health restrictions but was reminding Crown prosecutors that they can only pursue cases deemed winnable and in the public interest.
She later clarified that she had not talked to prosecutors directly, only through proper channels — her justice minister and deputy attorney general. The Justice Department has said Smith did not contact prosecutors directly.
The date of Smith's conversation with Pawlowski isn't known, but if she made the call before the Jan. 12 news conference, she did not tell reporters she had spoken with the accused.
She publicly admitted to the phone call three weeks later, on Feb. 9, when questioned about it at a news conference. At that time, Smith said she had advised Pawlowski that she could not offer amnesty and she had to let the court process roll out.
She did not mention then, as was later revealed in the call, that she offered to make further case-related inquiries on his behalf while telling him the charges were politically motivated and sympathizing with him when he complained the Crown was trying to spike his case and drain his wallet with a late-day “document dump."
The call was not brought up at Pawlowski’s trial.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2023.
— By Dean Bennett in Edmonton
The Canadian Press