The top civil servant at Alberta Justice says there are no formal rules stopping politicians from directly interfering in court prosecutions, but says his department relies on Crown lawyers knowing the boundaries and pushing back if it happens.
Frank Bosscha’s comments Tuesday to the legislature’s public accounts committee came amid questions surrounding Premier Danielle Smith’s involvement in COVID-19-related cases. The United Conservative Party government announced last week that Bosscha would leave his role as deputy minister to become a provincial court judge starting March 27.
“The safeguards are basically education and the policies that we have in place with the Crown Prosecution Service where they maintain their independence,” Bosscha said in response to questions from the Opposition NDP.
He said police have similar safeguards in place.
“There is not anything that we can put into place to stop someone from doing something that may not be in alignment with those policies,” he said.
“Our best option is to make sure that our staff know all of the rules, and that we respect the boundaries within the police service and within the prosecution, and the police service and the prosecution have the same duty to push back and protect their independence as well.”
Bosscha made the statements in response to questions from NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir about a third-party report released a year ago that determined former justice minister Kaycee Madu — now deputy premier —attempted to interfere in the administration of justice.
The NDP is seeking a similar third-party probe to resolve allegations that Smith or one of her staffers interfered starting as early as last fall into prosecutions related to a blockade of the Coutts, Alta., border crossing in protest of COVID-19 public health measures in January 2022.
Sabir did not refer directly to alleged involvement from Smith’s office in COVID cases, as such questions were outside the scope of the public account committee’s review of Alberta Justice’s 2021-22 annual report.
Smith has twice previously said she had spoken to prosecutors directly about COVID-related cases but later said she used “imprecise” language and had only spoken to Bosscha and to Justice Minister Tyler Shandro. The Justice Department confirmed Smith spoke only to those two.
Bosscha told the committee any such discussions should only go through him and the justice minister.
“It is never appropriate for a politician to reach into the Crown prosecution service,” Bosscha told the committee.
“The method is: The minister is a contact, I am a second contact and then if there are questions they can be posed to the prosecution service.
“But there is not direct contact between political officers, MLAs, into the prosecution service.”
The NDP has said Smith’s actions raise concern about the independent administration of justice and that there is precedent under the UCP for such a probe.
Last February, a retired judge concluded that Madu tried to interfere in the administration of justice when he called Edmonton’s police chief to discuss a traffic ticket. Former premier Jason Kenney moved Madu to a different portfolio, but Smith promoted Madu to deputy premier when she took office last fall.
Madu called the police chief in March 2021, but the government didn’t take action until it became public through media reports in January 2022.
Asked by Sabir when the Justice Department became aware of the Madu call, Bosscha said: “It basically cropped up when it became public.”
On the COVID cases, Smith has delivered multiple versions in recent weeks of who she talked to, what was discussed and when it was discussed.
There has been one investigation to date in response to a CBC story on Jan. 19 alleging a staffer in Smith’s office had sent emails to prosecutors last fall challenging how they were proceeding in cases involving the blockade at the Coutts border crossing. CBC has said it has not seen the emails but stands behind its story.
Smith immediately ordered a review of emails between her office and prosecutors. The review turned up no relevant correspondence but also raised questions over how far back deleted emails could be searched.
The CBC, in a Jan. 25, story, cited anonymous sources alleging Smith pressured Shandro to intervene in COVID cases. Smith has denied this.
The NDP has asked for Bosscha’s conversations with Smith and Shandro to be part of the review.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 14, 2023.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press