Inquiry commissioner Steve Allan handed $905K sole-source contract to son's law firm

The commissioner heading Alberta's public inquiry into allegations of foreign-funded reputational attacks on the province's oil and gas industry personally handed $905,000 in legal business to a Calgary law firm in which his son is a partner.

Commissioner Steve Allan granted the sole-source contract, for legal advice to the inquiry, to the law firm Dentons, where his son Toby is a partner.

The contract was issued 11 days after Allan was named by Premier Jason Kenney to head the $2.5 million Public Inquiry Into Funding of Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns.

"I think it's a clear conflict of interest," said Duff Conacher, co-founder of Ottawa-based Democracy Watch. 

"Whether any code (of conduct) applies to Steve Allan, or even if his son doesn't financially profit from it, it is his son's company and it is a clear conflict of interest, and (the commissioner) should not have taken part in any decision to hand a contract to Dentons," said Conacher, an adjunct professor of law and political science at the University of Ottawa.

As first reported by The Edmonton Journal last week, Alberta's database of sole-source contracts shows the government will pay Dentons $905,000 during the course of the contract, which began July 15 and is to run until March 31, 2020.

Despite requests, Allan did not make himself available for an interview over the past two days. In a text, he said his son will not benefit in any way from the contract, and said it was "vetted with government and Dentons before engagement was finalized."

In an email Wednesday night, Allan said he chose Dentons because he has "a long and successful history of working with counsel at Dentons through my professional career" and has confidence in the services they will provide to the inquiry.

Even if his son doesn't financially profit from it, it is his son's company and it is a clear conflict of interest.  - Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch

He did not respond to the specific issue of whether his son, as partner in the firm, would share in any of the profits from the contract.

Conacher said if Dentons is like most law firms, its partners share in its revenues.

But he said even if Toby Allan somehow opted out of any financial gain from the contract, it still benefits his partners and his law firm, "so the conflict would be there whether he was taking money from the contract or not."

At a news conference Thursday, NDP democracy and ethics critic Heather Sweet said the NDP is asking the province's ethics commissioner to review the awarding of the contract and determine if Allan broke any ethics rules.

Relationship raises questions about process: NDP

In September, CBC News asked how Dentons and the accounting firm Deloitte came to be chosen to conduct work for the inquiry. 

In an emailed statement, the commission said: "The commissioner, per the Terms of Reference which authorize his retention of such resources, selected these firms to provide expert legal counsel and supporting accounting advice to assist him in fulfilling his mandate."

Alberta's Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer is also a former partner at Dentons in Calgary. A press secretary for Schweitzer said in an emailed statement that the minister severed his relationship with Dentons in April and has no relationship with the firm. 

"We have been advised by (Justice Ministry) officials that they are not aware of any conflict that would prohibit the Inquiry from contracting with Dentons for services," the statement said.

"Large law firms are regularly required to construct ethical walls between clients in order to ensure no conflicts of interest," the statement said. "This is standard practice and we assume it would be followed in this case if necessary."

Conacher said there should have been an open competition for the business. 

"All contracts should be handled on a fair bidding process where the qualifications of those who are bidding, as well as the price that they're offering to do the work for, is taken into account," Conacher said. 

"And all of that has to be decided by people who have not even any appearance of conflict of interest."

The NDP's  Sweet said Allan's awarding of the Dentons contract is particularly troubling given the scarce details made public about the inquiry's work and how its $2.5-million budget will be spent.

Evelyne Asselin/CBC

She said even if his son will not financially benefit, Allan's personal connection to the firm "raises a lot of questions around why he picked this firm specifically."

Sweet said the NDP will urge the government to refer the contract to the province's ethics commissioner if it has not already done so. If the government refuses, she said the NDP will consider its options.

"The fact that the government has approved this, knowing that there is a perceived conflict of interest, should raise a lot of questions for Albertans about the openness and transparency of what this (inquiry's work) is actually going to be achieving for Albertans," she said.

"Because as of right now, it is starting to look like it is purely a political and partisan activity."

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