Smith was on vacation as questions swirled about her office reportedly interfering in prosecutions

Alberta’s premier was on a week-and-half-long holiday while the province erupted over reports that a member of her staff sent emails to Crown prosecutors in an attempt to interfere in COVID-19 blockade cases.

Danielle Smith returned to work Monday, attending meetings in Ottawa. Her office confirmed the vacation that same day but her spokesperson refused to say where she was or provide dates that she was away.

Before leaving, Smith held a press conference on Jan. 10, where she promised to be more accessible to journalists. She has not appeared publicly to take questions in nearly four weeks since then.

On Jan. 19, the CBC broke the story about the emails. That same day it was announced that former Reform Party leader Preston Manning will be paid $253,000 to chair a COVID-19 panel.

“The optics are not great for the premier because this absence from availability follows immediately when there were two serious sets of questions that were raised,” said political scientist Lori Williams told CTV News Edmonton.

“I think a lot of people are going to wonder about the timing of this and they may be asking if this is an attempt to avoid some of the controversy that’s been stirred up recently.”

Smith’s spokesperson said the vacation was pre-planned but would not say when the premier’s next media availability will be.

Williams said being absent amid controversy is not a good look for Smith or her UCP. It reminded her of how former premier Jason Kenney did not call in to, or did not attend, press conferences as COVID-19 cases were rising.

“If people are wondering about who is the most ethical, who’s the most trustworthy, who’s the most competent, reliable, steady sort or stable manager of tough issues, a premier that has these kinds of questions swirling around them may not be a premier that people feel comfortable supporting in the next election,” Williams said.

Smith has called the CBC story “defamatory” and in a Jan. 25 letter demanded that the news outlet retract the story. CBC has acknowledged its journalists have not seen the emails but is standing by the reporting.

Alberta’s justice department announced on Jan. 23 it had done a four-month search of ingoing, outgoing and deleted emails and found no evidence of contact between the premier’s office and prosecutors.

Smith has both said she did and did not talk to prosecutors directly. She has attributed conflicting statements to “imprecise” word choices.

The Alberta NDP renewed demands Monday that Smith answer questions from reporters and order an independent investigation to determine if emails were sent from her office to prosecutors.

“It’s a matter of critical importance that we make sure that our judicial system remains independent of any political interference and in this case, [the] premier has admitted that she reached out and talked to prosecutors about specific cases,” NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir.

“We should take her words for it and investigate.”

Sabir said Smith’s previously unexplained absence is similar to Kenney disappearing at times during the pandemic without publicly identifying who was in charge while he was away.

“This is a pattern among the UCP of not being accountable to the public. That needs to change and it’s the kind of entitlement that runs deep within this party,” Sabir said.

On Monday afternoon, Smith’s office sent a readout informing that she will be in Ottawa this week meeting with fellow premiers and the prime minister. It said her office would be providing updates, but there was no mention of her taking questions from reporters.

With files from The Canadian Press

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