EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, in a leaked cellphone call, commiserated with a COVID-19 protester about his trial while divulging to him there was an internal dispute over how Crown prosecutors were handling COVID-19 cases.
Smith also promised on the call to intervene as best she could on Artur Pawlowski's behalf and said she was reminding prosecutors "almost weekly" about her concerns over pursuing such cases.
“I’m sorry to hear what they're putting you through,” Smith is heard telling Pawlowski in the early January call, recorded on a cellphone videothat was released Wednesday by the Opposition NDP.
“I’m very sympathetic. This is very frustrating to me," the premier said.
“We’ll see if we can revisit that this week.”
The call was made before the trial of the Calgary pastor in February for criminal mischief and a charge under Alberta's Critical Infrastructure Defence Act. The charges relate to last year's blockade at the Canada-United States border crossing at Coutts., Alta., over COVID-19 health rules.
NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir said the call was leaked to the party over the weekend.
He said it’s clear evidence Smith breached what should be a sacrosanct firewall between politics and those who are charged and prosecuted.
“What the premier is admitting here is she has been trying to get these people off in some way, and she has been calling Crown prosecutors. That’s her words,” said Sabir.
During the 11-minute call, Pawlowski told Smith he believed the prosecutor was seeking to thwart his defence by overwhelming his lawyers and draining his wallet.
“He dumped in our laps over a thousand of pages of documents and hundreds of hours of testimonies to frustrate our defence. The trial is in three weeks,” Pawlowski tells Smith.
“We had to hire an entire legal team, which will cost over $150,000 extra, to comb though this massive additional disclosure.”
Pawlowski alleged in the call that the move was orchestrated by Justice Minister Tyler Shandro.
On the call, Smith told Pawlowski that she doubted Shandro was involved.
“I doubt very much that this is being driven by the minister," Smith said. "But I have also raised it with his deputy minister and let him know my dissatisfaction with the tactics.
“Can you just leave this with me? And I will make that request one more time.”
She added: “There was a case where they did something along the same lines: (a) huge document dump and then they just abandoned the case. They didn’t prosecute it the next day.
“I’m watching to see evidence that (prosecutors) are going to come to this judgment that many of these cases are unwinnable and not in the public interest.
“I’m beginning to see some signs (of that). I haven’t seen anything in your case yet, but if I can just maybe make that inquiry one more time.”
Smith stressed to Pawlowski that she couldn't offer clemency, that prosecutors are independent and that she is restricted to reminding them all cases must be winnable and in the public interest.
She told Pawlowski she would go through Rob Anderson, her principal policy adviser. "Rob Anderson has been doing most of my work with Justice in pushing this along."
Smith told a news conference in February she had spoken to Pawlowski, but it was to advise him she could not grant him amnesty.
Smith issued a statement Wednesday: “At no time have I spoken with anyone from the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, nor to my knowledge have any of my office’s staff. Allegations to the contrary are defamatory and will be dealt with accordingly.”
Anderson said in a statement: “At no time have I contacted the Crown Prosecution Service regarding this or any other related matter, and to my knowledge, I do not recall speaking with anyone charged with ongoing COVID related offences.
“The NDP’s, and any other party’s, direct or insinuated allegations to the contrary are defamatory and will be treated accordingly in the near future," he said.
Pawlowski could not be immediately reached for comment. A judge is set to deliver a verdict in his trial in May.
Smith has long been openly critical of COVID-19 masking, gathering and vaccine mandate rules, questioning if they were needed to fight the pandemic and labelling them intolerable violations of personal freedoms.
In October, after galvanizing party discontent with the federal government and COVID-19 restrictions, she won the leadership of the United Conservative Party to become premier.
Over the last few months, Smith has delivered multiple versions of what she said to justice officials about COVID-19 court cases. The controversy erupted early in the new year when Smith publicly acknowledged she had been taking a direct interest in the prosecutions.
Smith has said she talked to prosecutors directly and did not talk to prosecutors directly. She has said she reminded justice officials of general prosecution guidelines, but at other times reminded them to consider factors unique to COVID-19 cases. She has also suggested the conversations were ongoing but also that they had ended.
In January, she ordered an email search after a CBC story alleged a staffer in her office emailed prosecutors to question decisions and direction on cases related to the Coutts protest.
The Justice Department has said a search of ingoing, outgoing and deleted emails found no evidence of contact and that Smith had no direct contact with prosecutors.
The CBC said it did not see the emails in question but stood by its reporting.
The NDP has called for an independent investigation.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2023.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press