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Online video between Danielle Smith and Artur Pawlowski raises questions over interference

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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is heard speaking with outspoken Calgary pastor Artur Pawlowski in a newly-revealed video, creating questions about her influence on Alberta court cases.

On previous occasions, Smith has denied that she or a member of her staff made direct contact with Crown prosecutors in order to influence their decisions on cases involving COVID charges.

But that's not what she said to Pawlowski. 

The video, recorded by Pawlowski – who faces charges of inciting the Coutts border dispute in early 2022 – involves a conversation between himself and the premier. Critics say it could be evidence that Smith has been interfering with the justice system -- or at least involving herself more than she claimed to be.

The taped conversation starts with admiration on Smith's part. 

"I've been watching your public advocacy for many years," she said. "I'm sorry to hear what they've been putting you through."

"As you are aware, I am still on house arrest, facing 10 and a half years imprisonment for my speech in Coutts," Pawlowski responded, adding that he reached out to her "because of the promises that were never fulfilled."

Smith told him that she didn't have the same power of clemency that the U.S. president or U.S. governors have, but said she could "ask prosecutors (if) there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction, and is it in the public interest?

"I assure you that I have asked them that, almost weekly, ever since I got started here," Smith said in the recording.

"There have been a number of cases that have been abandoned as they have gone through that assessment and I'm very hopeful that will be the case for more cases but there really isn't a mechanism for me to get them to drop cases."

ARTICLE 'NOT TRUE'

In January, Smith's office responded to a CBC Calgary story that stated one of her staffers challenged prosecutors on several criminal cases that were connected to the Coutts border dispute.

CTV News hasn't yet been able to independently confirm the allegations. 

Smith's office says the article was not true.

"The CBC published a defamatory article containing baseless allegations that Premier's Office staff had sent a series of emails to Alberta Crown prosecutors concerning charges related to the Coutts protest and other pandemic-related matters before the courts. The CBC admitted that it had not seen any of the emails," Smith's office said in a statement attributed to no one in particular.

Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt said there's a blurry line between asking questions and applying political pressure.

"Now her defenders may say she's just asking questions," Bratt said. "But if you ask the same question over and over again, is that pressure?"

Back in the video, Pawlowski is heard appealing to Smith about the charges, saying they could have been dealt with differently. 

"Instead of sitting down and solving the problem, we had to hire an entire legal team, which will cost over $150,000 extra to comb through this massive additional disclosure that we never had before," he said.

Pawlowski accused Justice Minister Tyler Shandro "of playing a game" and Crown prosecutor Steven Johnson of "following directives."

Smith continues by saying she would check on that, but said she didn't think it had anything to do with Shandro.

"I think the issue is once the ball is rolling, these Crown prosecutors seem to be very independent and we can only ask them two questions as I mentioned to you," she said.

"I don't very much see this as driven by the minister, but I have also raised this with the deputy minister."

ALBERTA NDP SURPRISED BY CALL

The Alberta NDP says it was shocked to hear about the call between the premier and a man accused by police of encouraging violent actions, including the "admiration" Smith had for Pawlowski.

"The fact that someone accused of encouraging violence against police can get the premier on the phone at all is extraordinary," said Irfan Sabir, the NDP's justice critic, in a statement.

"That she greets him with such admiration says a lot about who Danielle Smith is. It's clear that interfering in Pawlowski’s case, and the cases of the other accused Coutts blockaders is a priority for Danielle Smith and the UCP."

Sabir said he wrote to Shandro, asking for an independent investigation into the alleged interference, but has never received a response from him.

"Shandro is clearly aware of the premier's actions, and he has failed in his duty to uphold the justice system," Sabir said.

"Smith lied to Albertans when she said she had never contacted prosecutors, and when she said no one in her office had contacted prosecutors."

Sabir says the solution is an independent investigation.

"One hundred per cent Albertans deserve to know what happened," said Sabir. "And deserve to be reassured their justice system is independent of political interference. Conversations like this do put a big question mark on that independence."

NEW STATEMENT FROM SMITH

On Wednesday morning, Smith's office preemptively released a new statement, ahead of any new news articles. 

In it, she said the organization is continuing its "campaign of defamatory attacks" against her.

Smith said she had already addressed the Jan. 26 conversation she had with Pawlowski during a media availability on Feb. 9.

"This should come as no shock since I spent a lot of time before and during my leadership campaign talking to hundreds of Albertans about COVID-related public health orders and violations," she stated.

Smith reaffirmed her statements that she was working with the justice minister's office, not Crown prosecutors, on the cases.

Those discussions recommended "against pursuing amnesty" for individuals charged with non-violent, non-firearms COVID-related charges.

"At no time have I spoken with anyone from the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, nor to my knowledge have any of my office's staff.

"Allegations to the contrary are defamatory and will be dealt with accordingly."

Experts point out the call wasn't illegal, but if Smith wasn't bluffing, it does raise questions.

"The Crown prosecutor's office has denied that they've had any conversation with the premier's office about this," said MRU justice studies professor Doug King. "So somewhere, someone isn't telling the truth."

CTV News has reached out to Pawlowski for further information about his discussions with the premier.

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