01/07/2013 07:15 EST | Updated 03/09/2013 05:12 EST

Alberta premier faces ethics probe over tobacco contract

Alberta's ethics commissioner is investigating whether Premier Alison Redford was in conflict of interest when she chose her ex-husband's law firm for a $10-billion tobacco lawsuit while she was justice minister.

Ethics Commissioner Neil Wilkinson confirmed that an investigation is underway in letters sent to the Liberal, NDP and Wildrose parties on Jan. 4.

The opposition parties asked Wilkinson for the probe following the broadcast and publication of a CBC News investigation that revealed Redford personally chose the law firm of her former husband, Robert Hawkes, for the government tobacco litigation contract in late 2010.

The firm, Jensen Shawa Solomon Duguid Hawkes or JSS, is part of a consortium of law firms from Florida, Ontario and Alberta known as International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers.

Redford has denied that she was in conflict of interest saying that the final decision was made after she resigned from cabinet in February 2011 to run for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party.

In a statement released late Monday afternoon, Justice Minister Jonathan Denis said that the government welcomed Wilkinson's review and said that the contract was actually signed by the justice minister, Verlyn Olson, four months after Redford stepped down.

“As Premier Redford stated earlier, she welcomes the review by the ethics commissioner and the Government of Alberta stands by our intention to recover money owed to Albertans by big tobacco, who for years misled people about the dangers of smoking," he said.

"That is what this is about. That is what we’re fighting for."

Denis said that International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers was chosen because it submitted the lowest bid, offered to work exclusively with Alberta, and included lawyers who had successfully litigated similar lawsuits against tobacco companies.

Findings will be made public

Three firms were in line for the contract: Bennett Jones, a team of McLennan Ross and Field Law, and International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers.

In a Dec. 14, 2010, memo obtained by CBC News through a Freedom of Information Act request, Redford told Deputy Justice Minister Ray Bodnarek that she had chosen International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers.

“Considering the perceived conflicts of interest, actual conflicts of interest, the structure of the contingency arrangement and the importance of a 'made-in-Alberta' litigation plan, the best choice will be the International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers,” Redford wrote.

Brad Odsen, a spokesperson for the office of the ethics commissioner, said that the findings of the probe will be made public. He expects the investigation will take several months with a report taking less than a year to prepare.