Democracy watchdog raises concerns over potential conflict for Alberta's new justice minister

Alberta’s newly appointed Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer begins his tenure as the province’s top legal official with the difficult task of evading a potential political and legal conflict of interest.

Just hours after the United Conservative Party leadership voting process began in late October 2017, Schweitzer and fellow candidate Brian Jean unsuccessfully tried to have the vote suspended over concerns about voter fraud.

Now, as the province’s justice minister and solicitor general, Schweitzer is responsible for ensuring an independent RCMP investigation, and potential criminal prosecution, of voter-fraud allegations made by other former party members, some evidence of which already has been uncovered by CBC News and other media outlets.

Schweitzer is also responsible for the independence of another RCMP investigation into alleged illegal political donations to the UCP leadership campaign of Jeff Callaway.

Documents obtained by CBC News show Callaway ran for the sole purpose of targeting Brian Jean on behalf of the campaign of Jason Kenney — who eventually won the leadership, was sworn in this week as premier and is now Schweitzer’s boss.

Democratic governance expert Duff Conacher said Schweitzer clearly cannot have any involvement with either of the RCMP files, but most particularly the investigation into alleged voter fraud.

“Schweitzer has a confirmed bias because he expressed concern about [alleged voter fraud],” said Conacher, a lawyer and the co-founder of Ottawa-based Democracy Watch.

“And so that would taint any decision that he might make, or anyone that he might choose to look into it.”

A spokesperson for the newly elected United Conservative government told CBC News on Wednesday that no one in cabinet, including Schweitzer, would be participating in media interviews until they are fully briefed on their portfolios. 

Fully independent prosecutor needed, expert says

The RCMP won’t comment on specific cases. But in an emailed statement, a spokesperson said officers have access to legal counsel through the federal Department of Justice. They can also receive specialized advice from lawyers seconded for a specific case.

“Our investigators may consult with in-house legal services or with the Crown prosecutors of an appropriate jurisdiction at any point during their work,” RCMP spokesperson Const. Michael Hibbs said. “Depending on the nature of the offences, the query would be routed accordingly, to either a federal or a provincial Crown.”

Conacher said the new government, to avoid even the appearance of bias, should work with opposition parties to establish an independent process for choosing a Crown prosecutor, ideally one from outside the province. He said in-house Crown prosecutors could not be expected to provide impartial legal advice since they work for the government.

The new UCP government, led by Premier Jason Kenney, won’t say how it will ensure an independent investigation. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

“It is very important in these kind of cases that the voters believe that justice has not only been done, but has been seen to be done through the whole process,” Conacher said, adding that means selecting a “fully independent prosecutor who makes independent decisions with no fear of retaliation from the ruling party or the government.”

CBC News asked the new UCP government if it was prepared to appoint an outside prosecutor or external counsel to ensure the investigation, and any potential prosecution, would be completely independent.

UCP press secretary Christine Myatt did not directly respond to the question. Instead, she issued a written statement that simply said the government does not interfere in independent police investigations.

The Opposition NDP did not respond to an interview request from CBC News.

Ongoing investigation into voter-fraud allegations

When Schweitzer and Jean publicly raised voter fraud allegations in October 2017, the party strongly denied there were any problems.

The chair of the UCP’s leadership election committee, Robyn Henwood, said an independent audit had confirmed there was no evidence of breaches and no problems with voter personal identification numbers (PINs).

But as CBC News has reported, there is evidence of serious irregularities with the UCP leadership voting process.

Documents show email addresses fraudulently attached to party memberships were used to cast ballots in the leadership vote.

A dozen people with suspect emails attached to their memberships confirmed they did not vote in the leadership race, and said their emails were different from the ones on the list.

It is not known how widespread the practice was outside of the sample of email addresses CBC News reviewed.

In April, the RCMP executed a search warrant and seized a computer from an auto-repair business owned by newly elected Calgary MLA Peter Singh.

Singh’s lawyer confirmed the computer seizure was part of the RCMP investigation into alleged voter fraud during the UCP leadership contest. Singh denied any wrongdoing.

It is not known if the RCMP sought any legal advice from federal or provincial Crown prosecutors to draft the search warrant application.

Last week, CBC News revealed the RCMP voter-fraud investigation had expanded to Edmonton. At least three officers have conducted unscheduled interviews with UCP leadership voters from the South Asian communities in Mill Woods.

The officers were attempting to verify the identities and emails of registered voters and whether they had actually voted.

CBC News has confirmed the RCMP are continuing to question registered UCP voters in Mill Woods.

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