EDMONTON - Alberta Premier Alison Redford has been cleared by the legislature Speaker in allegations she deliberately misled the house about her role in awarding a government contract to her ex-husband's law firm.
Speaker Gene Zwozdesky, in a ruling delivered Monday, said there is no clear evidence Redford made false statements to the house when she denied making the decision to pick the law firm that includes her ex-husband, Robert Hawkes.
"This is getting into a case of semantics, but it is evident there was no final decision made as to the selection of a law firm for the tobacco litigation when the premier was minister of justice," said Zwozdesky.
"The determination of whether the premier's statements were misleading is entirely subjective and depends greatly on the exact nature of the words used."
Zwozdesky was ruling on a motion made last Thursday by the Opposition Wildrose party to have Redford found in contempt of the legislature for making misleading statements.
To buttress its case, the Wildrose brought out internal documents and memos from Redford's time as justice minister in 2010.
The documents show that Redford urged her officials to pick the International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers, or TRL, which includes Hawkes's Calgary-based law firm, to sue big tobacco companies for $10 billion to recover some of the health costs of treating smokers.
The documents referred to Redford making the decision to pick to TRL, along with letters congratulating TRL on winning the competition and informing the other two competing firms that they had lost. All correspondence took place before Redford quit cabinet in February 2011 to run for leader of the Progressive Conservative party and ultimately premier.
Hawkes has remained close to the premier professionally as a political adviser. He headed up the transition team when she became premier in the fall of 2011.
Redford unequivocally told the house during question period last week that she did not make the decision. She was backed up Verlyn Olson, who is currently the minister of Agriculture.
Olson told the house that, as Redford's successor in the justice portfolio in 2011, he made the decision to retain TRL and signed the contract.
That led to the Wildrose motion to have the premier sanctioned.
However, Zwozdesky said Monday that the Wildrose had not made its case because it rested ultimately on two incompatible interpretations of the meaning of "decision."
Outside the legislature Wildrose house leader Rob Anderson said Redford won on legal technicalities, but said Albertans will judge the issue on common sense.
"The Speaker can say that black is white and the sky is green, but that doesn't make it true," said Anderson.
"I think we'll just leave it to Albertans to decide who was right and who was misleading folks in this case."
NDP critic Rachel Notley agreed, and within hours of Zwozdesky's decision the party had launched a petition to urge Redford to step down as premier until the matter is resolved by an independent body.
"The facts, the documents, and the statements by the premier make it very clear that she's not being honest with Albertans and I expect Albertans will reach that conclusion regardless of whatever's decided within the assembly," said Notley.
Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said Redford needs to step aside to preserve the legitimacy of her office.
"The premier needs to order a truly independent investigation into this; she needs to step aside and we need to restore public trust," said Sherman.
"We're talking $10 billion. The (legal fees) of that are in the hundreds of millions, possibly billions."
The lawsuit is being pursued on a contingency basis, meaning the law firm gets paid a percentage of any successful lawsuit. The government has not divulged that percentage, but Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk says he expects they will.
Lukaszuk, speaking for the premier, said Zwozdesky made the right decision.
"The premier has always been clear that (she) did not make the decision to engage the firm in question," said Lukaszuk.
"She did not break any laws."
Redford has labelled the accusations a campaign by her opponents to smear her and those closest to her.
On Monday, she told the house she is content to leave the matter in the hands of the Ethics Commissioner Neil Wilkinson.
"I welcome that (investigation)," said Redford. "And I stand by my comments with respect to this."
Zwozdesky's ruling came after angry exchanges with opposition politicians earlier Monday for shutting down their questions on the tobacco controversy.
Zwozdesky said until he made his ruling, parliamentary rules dictated that no questions could be asked in the house on that topic.
Opponents challenged it as a hamfisted and unfairly broad interpretation of the rules.
One by one, they stood to ask their questions anyway, forcing Zwozdesky to shut them down and scold them.
When NDP Leader Brian Mason said the rules also compel the Speaker to explain the reasoning behind his decisions, Zwozdesky shot back: "I've just explained this twice now! I'm not going to explain it a third time.
"Let's please abide by the rules as they exist. We're not here to invent them."
Minutes later, Zwozdesky got into a shouting match with Notley when she again demanded he give his reasons for shutting down the questions.
"I've already given clarification and justification and that's the end of that," said Zwozdesky.
Notley hollered back: "Are you saying any questions directed to the premier are now (out of bounds because they are) covered by the privilege motion? Is that what you're saying?"
Zwozdesky ignored her and moved on to another questioner.
Zwozdesky is a PC legislature member but acts impartially in the Speaker's chair.
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said Zwozdesky is overstepping his authority.
"Can you imagine this happening in Ottawa, them shutting down any of the number of questions that have been asked by the NDP opposition? And they also have a (government member) Conservative in the Speaker's chair," said Smith.
"It's outrageous what we saw today."