Braid: the new ethics czar with direct ties to the government breaks tradition

Sean McLeod was deputy minister of industrial relations until last June and has since consulted with the deputy minister of the executive council. This is very close to the heart of political power.

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Sean McLeod will be something new in Alberta: an ethics commissioner who worked for the same government that is now asking him to judge his behavior.

McLeod was deputy minister of industrial relations until last June and has since consulted with the deputy minister of the executive council, the administrative head of the whole government.

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This is very close to the heart of political power.

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For his work as commissioner, McLeod will earn between $220,000 and $295,000 a year.

McLeod, a First Nations lawyer, is clearly a big guy. Deputy ministers can surprise you with a brilliance that is not always obvious in the politicians who employ them.

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

But we have the right to ask that existential question: what the hell?

Does Prime Minister Danielle Smith even care about the impression the government gives?

This is a big break from tradition.

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

None of them had formal connections with the government in power. The first, Don Hamilton, had worked for Harry Strom, Socred’s last prime minister.

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

The progressive conservative majorities of those days still elected them.

These men, both now deceased, were not antagonistic to the PCs, but at least they had some genuine right to independence.

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

He carried out exactly three investigations during those years.

Two were involved in the dealings of a PC MLA. Then came a big one involving former Prime Minister Alison Redford, who had allegedly benefited her ex-husband’s company with a contract to fight tobacco companies.

Alison Redford
Former Alberta Premier Alison Redford. David Bloom/Postmedia Archive

Wilkinson found the politicians innocent in all three investigations.

That’s a pattern. In a mind-boggling study of 27 commissioners’ investigations between 1992 and 2014, I detected only two or three conflict-of-interest findings (the convoluted judgments often defy full understanding).

There are three possible reasons for this.

Our politicians are incredibly pure and ethical; commissioners are easy prey; or the Conflict of Interest Law is so narrow that any type of deceptive behavior falls outside its jurisdiction.

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

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

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I suspect she’s the only reason the UCP wanted someone like him.

Trussler is a different breed to previous commissioners: a former Queen’s Bench judge with a deep knowledge of the law and less of the legislature.

She was not afraid to say that the legislation limited her, although she added that if it were not so, the MLAs under scrutiny would be in trouble.

Daniel McIver
Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver and Premier Danielle Smith. Greg Southam/Postmedia Archive

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

However, Trussler said he wasn’t actually trying to help her. He wrote that McIver “was more interested in scoring political points than concerned with his wife’s business dealings.”

However, Trussler ordered him to apologize to the legislature and pay a $500 fine.

That was unprecedented. Resentment simmered, further inflamed by comments Trussler made following an investigation into Minister Adriana LaGrange and the mask procurement.

Although there was no evidence to find LaGrange conflicted, Trussler wrote, “there is reason to be suspicious.”

Then came the worst: Trussler’s 2023 investigation into the prime minister’s conversations with preacher Artur Pawlowski, in which Smith expressed sympathy for dropping his criminal charges.

That was the most public and damaging ethics investigation ever conducted. Trussler went into detail about the meetings and feedback.

He discovered that Smith was clearly conflicted because of a phone call to his Attorney General, Doug Schweitzer.

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

Never forget that Marguerite Trussler is the one who brought you, to paraphrase Brian Mulroney’s immortal line.

Don Braid’s column appears periodically in the Herald.

X: @DonBraid

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