EDMONTON - Alberta Premier Alison Redford — fending off accusations she had been caught red-handed in a patronage scandal involving her ex-husband — faced calls Thursday to step down and be cited for contempt of the legislature.
"There is overwhelming evidence that the premier lied," claimed NDP Leader Brian Mason, speaking to reporters.
"This is one of the most serious situations that I have ever seen affecting a premier. I'm today calling on Premier Redford to step aside until this matter is properly investigated.
"It will be very difficult to for this premier to continue to lead the province if she is not prepared to tell us the truth," Mason maintained.
Redford insisted for a second day that she told the truth about not picking her ex-husband's law firm to handle the Alberta government's lawsuit against big tobacco while she was justice minister in 2010.
The deal with International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers — which includes her ex-husband Robert Hawkes' firm — was finalized in June 2011 by another justice minister and the government says that's what is important.
However, newly released department memos and documents indicate that Redford made the decision and that the winner and losers were formally notified while she was still in the job.
The opposition Wildrose party asked Speaker Gene Zwozdesky to find Redford in contempt of the legislature because it says she misled the house about her involvement. Zwozdesky delayed his ruling until next week.
Hawkes has remained close to Redford professionally and led the transition team when she became premier more than a year ago.
"This is the biggest scandal in the premier's office in my lifetime," Wildrose house leader Rob Anderson told reporters.
"We're not talking about millions of dollars being sent to this law firm. We're talking about contingency fees that would result in billions of dollars going to a 12-person law firm including some of her closest donors, personal friends, (and) ex-husband.
"This is brutal. There's no other way to describe it."
The Wildrose and Mason hammered away at Redford on the topic in question period.
Redford didn't move in her chair in the front bench and stared straight ahead while the Wildrose asked nine consecutive questions that were answered by either Justice Minister Jonathan Denis or Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk.
Redford did stand to answer Mason's questions.
"I did tell the truth," she said. "I stand by what I said yesterday in this house. I told the truth."
Mason said those answers aren't good enough.
"How can Albertans ever again trust (her)?" he asked.
It was a day of conflicting statements from the premier's office.
A scheduled 3 p.m. news conference with Redford was cancelled 15 minutes before it was to begin. A spokesman for the premier said it was because the lawsuit issue had been addressed by Redford and other ministers in the house.
However, 90 minutes later, as Mason's challenge for Redford to step down grew on social media, Redford's team hastily called the media for a briefing outside her office.
Redford said they had simply delayed the earlier news conference until the Wildrose contempt motion was handled by Zwozdesky.
In the scrum, Redford dismissed calls from the opposition that she had lost credibility to lead and challenged a reporter who prefaced his question by referring to Redford making a decision on the ex-husband's firm.
"I will not let you characterize it to be that. I did not select any law firm," she said.
"It was not a decision, and I stand by what I've said."
The issue first made headlines Wednesday morning in a report by CBC-TV using documents obtained under freedom of information rules.
On Dec. 14, 2010, Redford — who was justice minister -- sent a memo to her top department bureaucrat on three competitors vying to handle a lawsuit on behalf of the province against tobacco companies.
"I note that the review committee considers all three firms interviewed to be capable of conducting the litigation and believes that while no consortium stood above the others, all three have unique strengths and weaknesses," wrote Redford.
"Considering the perceived conflicts of interest, actual conflicts of interest, the structure of the contingency arrangement and the importance of a 'made-in-Alberta' litigation plan, the best choice will be the International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers.''
On Wednesday, Redford told the house during question period that while she weighed in on the issue in favour of her ex-husband's law firm at the time, her successor at the Justice Department, Verlyn Olson, made the final decision in June 2011.
However, an internal Justice Department memo shows the final decision was made by Dec. 22, 2010 — about two months before Redford left the justice job and just over a week after Redford wrote a memo saying the consortium was the best choice.
"Call made to Karsten (sic) Jensen at the successful consortium," reads the email between senior justice department bureaucrats. Carsten Jensen is a partner in the firm with Redford's ex-husband.
The Wildrose also pointed to a followup internal Justice Department briefing document on Jan. 13, 2011, that states, "Shortly before Christmas, Minister Redford selected the International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers."
Other emails show the winning firm being congratulated and the losing bidders being officially informed they had lost, all while Redford was still the justice minister.
Redford, however, was unequivocal on the issue in the house Wednesday.
"I was not the justice minister at the time that the government made that decision," said Redford. "The opposition can stand up every single day and say that I was, but I wasn't. It is simply not the case. It is not true."
Denis told the house that TRL was chosen by Olson because, among other factors, it wasn't suing Big Tobacco on behalf of a number of applicants or other provinces.
Denis said they didn't want Alberta's interests to be lumped in with other litigants.
"We want a consortium that acts solely for Alberta taxpayers," Denis told the house.
Denis also told the house that Hawkes is not directly involved in the case and that the lawsuit is being pursued on a contingency basis, meaning if TRL fails to win any money for the province, it doesn't get paid.
Olson told reporters that when he came on board as justice minister, the department was dealing with just one firm on the tobacco lawsuit, TRL, but said that didn't mean TRL had been chosen.
Olson compared it to a conditional sale on a house: while one seller is dealing with one buyer, nothing is for sure until the I's are dotted and the T's are crossed.
"There was groundwork laid, but there was no deal," said Olson. "There was nothing until I made the decision."
Both the Liberals and the Wildrose are urging Ethics Commissioner Neil Wilkinson to investigate the matter.
It's the second time in two weeks that controversy has erupted around someone close to Redford.
Last week, freedom of information documents showed Redford's sister, Lynn, used her position as a Calgary health executive to bill taxpayers for about $3,400 to buy liquor, tickets and bug spray for PC party events.
The premier has declined to comment on that case and Lynn Redford continues to work as a senior health executive.