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Lethbridge cops almost get away with illegal surveillance of an NDP minister

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Lethbridge-West NDP MLA Shannon Phillips, who was environment minister in the Notley government. Image: David J. Climenhaga

It's tempting to write off yesterday's big story about that pair of none-too-bright county mounties from the Lethbridge Police Service caught stalking an NDP cabinet minister as just a dumb cop comedy without much significance.

But Sergeant Jason Carrier and Constable Keon Woronuk were no Gunther Toody and Francis Muldoon, and when they were conducting their unauthorized investigation of Lethbridge-West MLA Shannon Phillips' political activities back in 2017, no one in the Southern Alberta city's police department seems to have thought to wonder, "Car 54, where are you?"

Anyway, officers Carrier and Woronuk left enough of Alberta's political DNA at the scene of the crime to warrant a closer look at this case before the trail goes cold.

When they stumbled upon then-environment-minister Phillips meeting with someone they didn't recognize in a Lethbridge diner in 2017, Carrier and Woronuk seem to have already been furious she was interfering with their God-given right to drive their personal ATVs wherever they pleased in the nearby Castle region, where the NDP planned to create a park.

"Both officers were involved in the off-roading community, whose members were upset by NDP plans to restrict off-road vehicle use in the environmentally sensitive area," said one news report, considerably understating the rabid fury of the off-road crowd at the thought the NDP might stop their fun tearing up streambeds and scaring the bejeesus out of hikers and wildlife.

The pair decided on the spot to take photos of Phillips and the person she was meeting, run their cars' plates as if they were criminal suspects, and follow them.

That would have been the end of the matter had Woronuk not decided to post his photos on social media, which led to a complaint from Phillips to the Calgary police.

The Calgary cops soon uncovered the illegal plate search and passed the case to their colleagues in Medicine Hat, another deep south Alberta city not far from Lethbridge, who decided to lay charges under the police service regulation.

That, in turn, led to a discreet hearing in Medicine Hat last week that resulted in the pair being let off with a gentle tap on the wrist -- in the form of temporary demotions of two years for Woronuk and one year for Carrier.

That too would likely have passed unnoticed had Alex McCuaig, a reporter for CHAT News in Medicine Hat, not happened by and noted the penalty decision. God bless him, he wrote a story.

That was the point at which the proverbial stuff started hitting the fan.

UCP Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer -- who normally plays Bill Barr to Premier Jason Kenney's Donald Trump in Alberta's political drama -- shocked everyone with a tweet assailing the hapless southern Alberta plods.

"Tonight I was informed of two Lethbridge police officers who had been conducting an unauthorized surveillance of MLA Shannon Phillips in 2017," he tweeted Monday. "I share in the outrage being expressed by many following this news," he added, quickly making the point he knew nothing about the rogue investigation.

Soon Premier Kenney was chirping the same song. "This conduct is completely unacceptable," he tweeted. "It's deeply disturbing that police officers used their powers for private purposes in unauthorized surveillance of an elected official. I am appalled that MLA Phillips was subjected to this, & thank Min Schweitzer for taking swift action."

Schweitzer said he has asked the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team -- the province's so-called police watchdog, which normally treats law enforcement misdeeds with kid gloves -- to look into the matter.

Remember, Schweitzer and Kenney are guys who want to replace the RCMP, which polices most Alberta communities, with a provincial police force that in all likelihood would be far more like the Lethbridge Police Service than real Mounties.

For her part, Phillips said the way citizens must deal with complaints about police misdeeds is flawed, and the problem with the Lethbridge department is not just a matter of a couple of bad apples. "There is an influential element within the rank and file that do not uphold their sacred duty to the public trust and to the honour of being a police officer and all of the responsibility that entails," she told McCuaig.

The province's response, while better than nothing, doesn't go far enough, Phillips argued. Schweitzer needs to appoint a Crown prosecutor from outside the province to oversee the ASIRT investigation if anyone is to have any confidence in its outcome, she said.

"I do not believe a disciplinary action of a mere demotion is at all reasonable in these circumstances and that's because what these officers have done is undermine public trust," she told Lethbridge News Now.

Left unmentioned so far in this affair is the startling and continuous abuse endured by female politicians in Alberta by groups like the so-called "off-roading community" while the NDP was in power.

Did the political climate in Alberta at the time make Carrier and Woronuk feel justified in launching an unauthorized surveillance of a female NDP politician when they already felt they were above the law? It seems likely, notwithstanding the chirps of outrage now being emitted by politicians on the right who benefited from such sentiments.

Unfortunately for the hapless heat from Lethbridge, Phillips is one of the toughest and outspoken members of the Alberta legislature, not some poor kid dressed like a galactic stormtrooper.

"While these officers have indeed failed in their duties, that failure does not reflect the values and duty of the police service to the community," Lethbridge police Chief Scott Woods insisted, nevertheless.

This isn't the first time something like this has happened in Alberta.

Long before he became one of Canada's most right-wing politicians, Edmonton Griesbach member of Parliament Kerry Diotte was an Edmonton Sun reporter whose stories annoyed members of the Edmonton Police Service enough in 2004 to stake out a bar where he was meeting the reform-minded chair of the Edmonton Police Commission.

Diotte got a call on his cellphone from a Sun reporter who'd been monitoring the police scanner in the newsroom and figured out what was going on, and both men prudently left the bar by taxi. Diotte said later he'd planned all along to take a cab.

This ironically means Phillips, one of the hardest working political figures in the province, has something on common with Diotte, to whom the same description cannot be applied.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David J. Climenhaga

Editor's note, July 15, 2020: A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Alex McCuaig. He is McCuaig, not McQuaig.

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