Braid: New ethics czar with direct government connection breaks a 30-year tradition

Sean McLeod was a deputy labour relations minister until last June, and since then has consulted with the deputy minister of executive council. That’s very close to the heart of political power.

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Sean McLeod will be something new to Alberta — an ethics commissioner who worked for the very government that now asks him to judge their behaviour.

McLeod was a deputy labour relations minister until last June, and since then has consulted with the deputy minister of executive council — the administrative boss of the whole government.

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That’s very close to the heart of political power.

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For his toil as commissioner, McLeod will earn somewhere between $220,000 and $295,000 per year.

A lawyer who is First Nations, McLeod is clearly a substantial fellow. Deputy ministers can shock you with brilliance that isn’t always obvious in the politicians who employ them.

The criticism his appointment faces may even make him eager to be fair and non-partisan.

But we’re entitled to ask that existential question — what the hell?

Does Premier Danielle Smith even care about the impression the government makes?

This is a huge break with tradition.

Since the ethics office was created in 1992, there have been four commissioners before McLeod.

None of them had any formal connections with the government in power. The first one, Don Hamilton, had worked for Harry Strom, the final Socred premier.

Hamilton’s successor, Bob Clark, had been a Socred minister and then party leader in the movement’s dying days. His job was to oppose the PCs.

The Progressive Conservative majorities of those days still selected them.

Those men, both departed now, were hardly antagonistic to the PCs but at least had some genuine claim to independence.

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Then came Neil Wilkinson, prominent Edmonton businessman and community leader, who was commissioner from 2008 to 2014.

He conducted exactly three investigations during those years.

Two were into the dealings of a PC MLA. Then came a big one involving former premier Alison Redford, who was alleged to have benefited her ex-husband’s firm with a contract to fight tobacco companies.

Alison Redford
Former Alberta premier Alison Redford. David Bloom/Postmedia file

Wilkinson found the politicians blameless in all three inquiries.

That’s a pattern. In a mind-numbing survey of the commissioners’ 27 investigations from 1992 to 2014, I spotted only two or three findings of conflict of interest (the convoluted rulings often defy full understanding.)

There are three possible reasons for this.

Our politicians are incredibly pure and ethical; the commissioners are pushovers; or the Conflict of Interest Act is so narrow that all kinds of tricky behaviour falls outside its jurisdiction.

I favour the last explanation. In their rulings, commissioners often complained they were hamstrung by the law itself.

Then, in 2014, the PCs appointed Marguerite Trussler, who is still in the job pending McLeod’s arrival.

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I suspect she’s the whole reason the UCP wanted somebody like him.

Trussler is a different breed from earlier commissioners — a former Queen’s Bench judge with deep knowledge of the law and less of the legislature.

She wasn’t afraid to say that the legislation constrained her, while adding that if it didn’t, MLAs under scrutiny would be in trouble.

Ric McIver Danielle Smith
Minister of Municipal Affairs Ric McIver and Premier Danielle Smith. Greg Southam/Postmedia file

In 2017, she found eternal minister Ric McIver in conflict of interest over questions he asked that might have benefited his wife.

Trussler said he really wasn’t trying to help her, though. She wrote that McIver “was more interested in scoring political points than worried about his wife’s business.”

Trussler nonetheless ordered him to apologize to the legislature and pay a fine of $500.

That was unprecedented. Resentment simmered, further inflamed by remarks Trussler made after an inquiry into minister Adriana LaGrange and mask procurement.

Even though there was no evidence to find LaGrange in conflict, Trussler wrote, “there are grounds for suspicion.”

Then came the whopper — Trussler’s 2023 investigation into the premier’s conversations with preacher Artur Pawlowski, in which Smith voiced sympathy for dropping his criminal charges.

That was the most public and damaging ethics inquiry ever. Trussler went into deep detail of meetings and comments.

She found Smith to be in clear conflict because of a phone call to her justice minister, Tyler Shandro.

And so, to Sean McLeod, welcome aboard and a word of warning.

Never forget that Marguerite Trussler is the one that brung ya, to paraphrase Brian Mulroney’s immortal line.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald.

X: @DonBraid

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