Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and her entourage spent big on its trip to Dubai for the COP28 climate conference in December, which included a stay at the luxury five-star Habtoor Grand Resort on Dubai’s Jumeira Beach, according to government expense filings reviewed by Ricochet. 

The UCP government’s 16-person delegation to the conference, which occurred from November 30 to December 13, 2023, expensed at least $170,000 from the public purse on hotels, airfare, meals, transportation, parking and mileage related to the trip, expense filings reveal, with more than half that figure consisting of $90,000 spent on hotels.

“What I find completely outrageous is that taxpayers we’re funding a greenwashing tour. We’re essentially funding folks who are there to lobby for private interests, but with public money.” 

These numbers make the UCP delegation to COP28 Alberta’s largest, longest and most expensive trip to COP to date, as Adam Toy of Global News first reported on March 28, dwarfing the NDP’s delegation to COP21 in Paris in 2015. 

Aliénor Rougeot, the climate and energy program director at Environmental Defence Canada, was also in attendance at COP28. She told Ricochet that while she supports governments sending delegations to COP, she personally witnessed Premier Smith and the Alberta delegation advocate for endless oil and gas production while promoting “false solutions,” such as carbon capture, utilization and storage technology, which industry is using to extract large subsidies from governments without proven results. 

“What I find completely outrageous is that taxpayers we’re funding a greenwashing tour,” Rougeot said. “We’re essentially funding folks who are there to lobby for private interests, but with public money.” 

Section 1(2)(a) of Alberta’s Travel, Meal and Hospitality Expenses Policy says “taxpayer dollars are to be used prudently and responsibly with a focus on accountability and transparency.” Subsection (2)(c) adds, “travel, meal, hospitality and other expenses must be demonstrated to be necessary and economical with due regard for health, safety and security.”

The Dubai delegation included Premier Smith and Minister of Environment and Protected Areas Rebecca Schulz, five UCP staffers, a sheriff, a tour guide and six bureaucrats. Smith’s husband, David Moretta, was also present, but paid his own expenses, Global reports.

Aliénor Rougeot

In February 2016, the then-NDP government issued a report into its trip to Paris for COP21 — less than three months after the trip ended — which laid out the breakdown of total costs, itineraries for Premier Rachel Notley and Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips, objectives and results. Five months after the Dubai trip, the UCP hasn’t done so. 

Neither the Premier’s Office nor the Ministry of Environment and Protected Areas responded to a list of a dozen detailed questions, but after Ricochet’s inquiry, they began updating some of the expenses’ documentation. 

“Alberta cannot rely on the federal government to promote the province’s leadership, for example, on carbon pricing or our commitment to innovation and technologies to give a few examples,” Smith spokesperson Sam Blackett wrote in a statement to Global identical to one sent by the Ministry of Environment and Protected Areas.

Smith’s government has opposed any federal government policy that would lead to an eventual reduction in fossil fuel production, including requirements for a net-zero electricity grid by 2035, carbon pricing, and a forthcoming emissions cap for the oil and gas industry, while maintaining it supports the ambition of reaching net-zero by 2050.

Living large

The Habtoor Grand Resort, where members of the delegation, including Premier Smith, stayed for 10 days, has a private beach, 10 restaurants and bars, a spa and tennis court.

Blackett, Smith’s spokesperson, told Global that the Habtoor was chosen to “seek balance”  between providing value for Albertans, security, and accessibility to the conference and associated meetings.

According to section 1(2)(f) of the Expenses Policy, accommodations and transportation options must “provide the greatest overall value.”

In total, Premier Smith, chief of staff Marshall Smith, Premier’s Office executive director Rob Anderson, UCP staffer Katherine Stavropolous, Smith spokesperson Rebecca Polak and tour guide Peter Procee charged the public $45,000 on hotels, with the bulk of those expenses apparently spent staying at the Habtoor resort.

The Ministry of Environment and Protected Areas told Global that Minister Schulz, her chief of staff and three bureaucrats stayed at the Pullman Dubai Jumeirah Lakes Towers. Expense disclosures reveal they spent $37,000 on hotels.

Smith herself spent about $11,000 in public funds on the trip, expensing only her airfare and hotels. Anderson, Marshall Smith, Stavropolous and Polak each spent around $14,000. 

Meal expenses for Smith’s entourage were upwards of $236 a day.

The most profligate spender on the Gulf trip was Procee, the government tour guide, who arrived in Dubai on Nov. 23 — a week before the conference began — and expensed a total of $20,700, including $9,556 on hotels. 

A close examination of Procee’s disclosures revealed some questionable expenses, including a $110-ride with Khaibar Luxury Transport on December 8, as well as four Lime scooter rides — two on December 6 and two on December 10 — costing more than $100 combined. 

Ricochet asked the Premier’s Office why these particular expenses were approved, but didn’t receive a response.

Detour to Doha

The trip to the climate conference included a surprise two-day trek to Doha, Qatar, from December 10 to 12, which was attended by Premier Smith, Marshall Smith, Anderson, Polak, Stavropolous and Procee. Ricochet asked the government whether Moretta, Smith’s husband, travelled to Qatar.

Flights to Doha and back cost the delegation around $4,000. While Danielle Smith, Marshall Smith, Anderson, Polak and Procee booked their tickets on December 6, Stavropolous booked hers on December 9, with her flight costing $823 as a result — more than $300 more than anyone else paid. 

Procee initially purchased a $547 ticket for the trip from December 10 to 12 for, but ultimately went two days early, purchasing a $570 ticket on December 8. Expense disclosures provide no indication the government was reimbursed for the cost of his initial ticket. 

Minister Schulz and her delegation, whose expenses are listed separately, didn’t travel to Qatar.

The luxury five-star Habtoor Grand Resort on Dubai’s Jumeira Beach that Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and her entourage stayed in while attending the COP28 climate conference in December.

According to reporting from December, Smith discussed investment opportunities in various sectors with Qatari government officials, talked to Qatar Airways about possibly opening direct to Alberta flights and visited the University of Calgary’s Qatar campus to discuss its nursing program. 

Rougeot of Environmental Defence pointed out the “stark contrast” between the Alberta government and industry’s domestic rhetoric on the province’s fossil fuel industry and the global reality. At home, Alberta crude is advertised as an “ethical” alternative to “dictator oil”, despite clear evidence to the contrary, but abroad Smith is more than willing to cut deals with Emirati and Qatari dictators to promote fossil fuel expansion. 

“That shift of feelings depending on where you are in the world feels very dishonest,” she added.

Gaps in transparency

Under Appendix A of the Expenses Policy, claimants must provide a receipt for accommodations to receive reimbursement for the “actual expense.” Otherwise, they’re only entitled to $20.15 a night. 

The main receipt included for the delegation’s stay at the Habtoor resort, filed after December 8, lists the Premier Smith, Marshall Smith, Anderson, Polak, Stavropolous (under her maiden name, Lomax), Procee and Semir Budimlic. 

According to LinkedIn, Budimlic, a 2022 Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal recipient, works for the Government of Alberta as a sheriff. 

The only hotel receipt that links back to the Qatar trip is Anderson’s two-night stay at the J.W. Marriott in Doha, which cost Albertans $565 on December 12. 

Danielle Smith, Marshall Smith and Stavropolous all have hotel expenses for the same amount on the same day, and Procee — who was in Doha two days longer — expensed $1,129 for a hotel stay on December 12 as well. Polak charged the government $553 for hotel expenses related to the trip in January, but these expense all link back to the Habtoor receipt. 

The receipt lists Danielle Smith, Marshall Smith, Anderson, Polak and Budimlic as staying at the Habtoor for nine nights each — from December 1 to December 10. Stavropolous, listed under her maiden name, is listed as staying 11 nights — from November 29 to December 10 — while Procee is listed for six nights — December 8 to 14. 

But Procee was in Doha from December 8 to 12. It’s unclear from the patchwork of receipts he provided whether the government was charged for a room he didn’t use.

Procee filed a December 17 receipt for a stay at the Habtoor from November 26 to December 1 for $3,795, but was only reimbursed $3,304, and stayed for one night at the downtown Abu Dhabi Marriott on December 6, which cost $432. 

Ricochet asked the Premier’s Office and ministry about this apparent discrepancy in documentation. 

At some point after Ricochet’s inquiry to the government, the Habtoor receipt was updated, removing Budimlic’s name and replacing it with “Security,” and providing further documentation of payments for the group’s stay. 

A December 3 email lists all the members of Smith’s entourage, including Procee, extending their stays from Dec. 7 to 10. And a December 8 receipt for Procee shows him checking into the Habtoor for two nights. 

At home, Alberta crude is advertised as an “ethical” alternative to “dictator oil”… but abroad Smith is more than willing to cut deals with Emirati and Qatari dictators to promote fossil fuel expansion. 

Bureaucrats Chris Ryan, the provincial government’s executive director of international relations, and Tristan Sanregret, the assistant deputy minister for international relations, expensed a combined $7,950 on lodging for their trip, but have yet to provide receipts, so it’s unclear where they stayed. 

While the bureaucrats expensed each individual meal, Smith’s staffers expensed meal totals for each day. 

There are also gaps in disclosures for the Ministry of Environment and Protected Areas delegation, which the ministry told Global wouldn’t be complete until mid-April. 

For their stay at the Pullman Dubai Jumeirah Lakes Towers, only Minister Schulz, chief of staff Christopher Thresher and Deputy Minister Katarzyna Piquette have receipts listed. But these entries all link to Assistant Deputy Minister Jamie Curran’s receipt, despite Curran not having a receipt listed next to his own disclosure.

Only Thresher and Schulz have provided receipts for their airfare. Despite having purchased her airfare on October 26 — almost two weeks before Thresher — it took Schulz until March 18 to submit it. 

Kathleen Rich, assistant deputy minister for lands and stewardship, filed a November 9 flight expense for $4,100, but she also has a $2,625 airfare expense listed from October 14. Like Procee’s two roundtrips to Qatar, there’s no indication that the first expense was returned.

Good governance advocate calls for AG investigation

Duff Conacher, a co-founder of Democracy Watch, a non-partisan organization dedicated to promoting government accountability and transparency, told Ricochet that these “gaps and contradictions” in the delegation’s disclosures warrant the auditor general taking the rare step of investigating government expenses for the COP28 delegation. 

He said it’s unclear whether the disclosure discrepancies are the result of “incompleteness or something being covered up,” which is a determination the auditor general can make. 

While a government delegation to Dubai for a climate conference was always going to be expensive, Conacher added, the auditor general can opine on whether the total cost was justified.

Section 1(g) of the Expenses Policy notes that all expense claims must be “able to withstand scrutiny by the Auditor General of Alberta and members of the public” and be “reasonable.”

“Expenses are, unfortunately, usually not examined by auditors general, because they’re relatively small amounts compared to overall spending, but are as a result ripe for abuse,” Conacher said, pointing to how a $170,000 delegation pales in comparison to the size of the province’s health and education budgets. 

“But this area needs to be watched very closely as well,” he added, referring to expenses, “because any trip abroad should provide value for money spent in terms of informing public policy or advancing the interests of Albertans, and should never be a junket for politicians and their family members and staff.”