Update (added June 11, 2021): On Friday morning, the Western Standard revised its original article to add Premier Jason Kenney's denial and remove some of the elements that the premier is contesting, including references alleging specific ministers were in attendance, the name of restaurant in question and the allegations of gatherings at the private residence of a lobbyist. The Western Standard also added that it has not been proven the gatherings occurred as alleged.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has sent a cease-and-desist letter to a Calgary-based news outlet because of what his lawyer calls "false and defamatory allegations" in a recent article.
The letter from the lawyer, obtained by CBC News, concerns an article published Wednesday by the Western Standard website that alleged Kenney has had social gatherings at a restaurant, Edmonton's Bottega 104, in contravention of COVID-19 restrictions since the new year.
Those gatherings allegedly included Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon and Minister of Health Tyler Shandro.
The article also alleged Kenney and others attended gatherings at the private residence of a lobbyist.
The article is based only on unnamed sources who spoke to the Western Standard.
Kenney's office denied the allegations via Twitter on Wednesday. CBC News has not verified the truth of the allegations.
The allegations are "a complete fabrication," according to the letter from lawyer Steven Dollansky.
"Premier Kenney, Minister Nixon and Minister Shandro have not attended any indoor dinners at Bottega 104 (or any other restaurant) while indoor dining was prohibited by public health restrictions," the letter says.
It says the premier had two meals at Bottega 104, once in 2019 and once again last summer in full compliance with health orders.
"Further, none of the elected officials that you have mentioned have attended any 'illegal gatherings' in the private residences of lobbyists as alleged or at all," the letter states.
Article is a 'fabrication,' premier says
The managing partner of the restaurant also denies the allegations.
"The report is false. The premier has never dined here," Antonio Petosa told CBC News. "I spoke to the reporter at the Western Standard and told him the same thing. He will be contacted by our lawyers."
Petosa says if given the dates of the alleged gatherings, he can provide security camera footage proving the premier was not there. The article did not specify the dates.
Kenney apologized earlier this week after he and others were photographed dining on an outdoor patio over the Alberta legislative grounds. Kenney conceded people were sitting too close together.
Addressing the article at a news conference Thursday, the premier reiterated it was untrue.
"It is a fabrication from beginning to end," he said. "I've never visited a restaurant that was not supposed to be operating, and when I have gone to restaurants during the whole period of the pandemic, it was in compliance with the rules."
His office says taxpayers will not be footing the legal costs associated with the letter.
Western Standard stands by article
The cease-and-desist letter also claims the Western Standard acted irresponsibly because Kenney's response was not sought or included in the article.
His office says it has no record of a media request from the Western Standard. The publication says it asked for comment at 5:49 p.m. MT Wednesday. The article was published seven minutes later.
"Pure speculation is not journalism and unsubstantiated gossip is not news," the letter reads. It calls the article "nothing more than a sensational political hit piece designed to drive page impressions and commercial profits."
The letter calls on the Western Standard to immediately remove the article and any related tweets, issue a written retraction, apologize to the premier and those named in the article, and refrain from publishing any further defamatory content related to the statements or the article.
Western Standard maintains the story was accurate.
"We stand by our story. We have multiple, credible sources who gave us the same statement in detail," publisher and CEO Derek Fildebrandt told CBC News.
"We believe that the best way to address the story is to answer our reporter's questions and not to try to silence an independent media outlet that does not accept federal media subsidies with a SLAPP suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation lawsuit). They know that they have vastly greater resources than we do and hope that this will make it go away. We are retaining counsel and will have further statements in the future."
Fildebrandt quit the caucus of Alberta's United Conservative Party in 2017 amid controversy, including being found guilty of a hit and run, being charged with illegal hunting and having rented out his apartment on Airbnb while claiming a housing allowance as an MLA.
After being elected leader, Kenney said Fildebrandt would not be welcomed back in the UCP caucus or be allowed to seek the party nomination in his riding after he "deliberately misled" the party about his legal issues. Fildebrandt ran in the 2019 provincial election as a candidate for the Freedom Conservative Party in the Chestermere-Strathmore riding. He was defeated by the UCP candidate.
The two men have disagreed on the details that led to that decision. Fildebrandt alleged that Kenney privately told him he could rejoin the party and omitted facts in his public statement at the time. Kenney said Fildebrandt had been told he would need the support of caucus to be readmitted as a member and would need to ensure "there were no outstanding ethical or legal issues that could bring embarrassment to him or the party."