03/14/2012 12:25 EDT | Updated 05/14/2012 05:12 EDT

Alberta Premier Redford ignores "stupid" slur for handling for Mar affair

EDMONTON - Alberta Premier Alison Redford is dismissing comments from a senior Progressive Conservative party fundraiser who said she was "stupid" to suspend trade envoy Gary Mar in a fundraising scandal.

"He's a volunteer, he's a member of the party, he's certainly an active member," Redford said Wednesday about John Chomiak.

"He's entitled to his opinion. I don't happen to agree with his opinion and that will be the end of the matter from my perspective."

Chomiak, Mar's fundraiser, and a key fundraiser for former premier Ed Stelmach, made the comments to a Calgary newspaper, saying Redford should have at least talked to some of the people involved before taking action.

The premier said suspending Mar without pay was the prudent thing to do as an employer while an independent investigator gets to the bottom of what happened.

"This is what I certainly feel comfortable doing. I acted on this immediately. This is what Albertans expected," she said.

"I believe it was the appropriate step to take."

Redford also confirmed the case is now in the hands of Peter Watson, Alberta's top civil servant and the man who advises her cabinet.

Watson will hire an outside investigator to review the case. Redford said there is no timeline on when the review will be done.

Redford initially asked legislature ethics commissioner Neil Wilkinson to handle the case, but Wilkinson returned the case to her late Tuesday, saying it was outside his jurisdiction.

Wilkinson, in an interview, said he was not surprised the premier initially gave the job to him. His office has been the go-to authority for all such issues.

But he said the Mar case is unique.

"The only thing where we do not have authority over is investigation of senior officials. That clearly comes under the code of conduct for civil servants, and that's the process they're rightfully following," he said.

Redford said she suspended Mar last Friday after a reporter showed her a cellphone picture of an invitation to a March 1st Mar fundraiser that spelled out he was there in the capacity as trade envoy to Asia.

That invitation was pulled shortly after it was sent out and reissued with Mar's title removed.

More than 100 supporters reportedly paid $400 a plate to hear Mar speak about trade opportunities in Asia at the event. A trip to Hong Kong, where Mar is based, was also auctioned off for $20,000.

Mar has said he is innocent and would not knowingly leverage his job as trade envoy to raise funds to pay private debts.

Mar says the auction winner was not promised insider access to Asian business leaders and no one who attended the event was offered preferential treatment.

His failed run last year to replace Ed Stelmach as party leader and premier cost $2.7 million, of which he was $60,000 out of pocket personally.

Mar is paid $265,000 a year as envoy.

The affair comes at a politically volatile time for Redford's Progressive Conservatives.

They must by law hold an election sometime in the next two months. Opponents such as the Wildrose party are gaining ground with arguments that the Mar case typifies a corrupt government that can't recognize, let alone toe, the ethical line after being in charge for 40 years.

In question period Wednesday, Wildrose critic Paul Hinman said the premier showed poor leadership by calling for an investigation instead of exonerating Mar or sacking him for good.

"What are you going to do, premier? Run over him or stop and pick him up? Show some real-life leadership," Hinman told the house.

Redford was not in the legislature, but government house leader Dave Hancock said the premier made the responsible decision.

"She did the right thing immediately and said, 'An investigation will take place.' She did not say, 'A hanging will take place,'" said Hancock.

Earlier this week, opposition politicians said Redford should not have hired Mar for the job so quickly after defeating him in the Tory party leadership race last fall.

The move was seen as fence-mending to Mar and his supporters. The former cabinet minister had been the overwhelming favourite to replace Stelmach but was stunned by Redford on the second round of voting on a preferential ballot.

Opponents note that Mar has a history of questionable dealings, including paying out almost $400,000 to a former assistant for no work. Mar said it was for verbal advice.