Tory cab­i­net min­is­ter's of­fice blocked full release of re­port

Cape Breton Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY DEAN BEEBY

OTTAWA — A fed­eral cab­i­net min­is­ter’s aide killed the release of a sen­si­tive re­port re­quested un­der free­dom-of-in­for­ma­tion in a case eerily sim­i­lar to a no­to­ri­ous inci- dent in the spon­sor­ship scan­dal.

A bu­reau­crat had to make a mad dash to the depart­ment’s mail­room last July to re­trieve the re­port at the last minute un­der or­ders from a se­nior aide to then-Pub­lic Works min­is­ter Chris­tian Paradis.

The or­der was is­sued by Se­bastien Togneri, Paradis’ par­lia­men­tary af­fairs di­rec­tor, in a terse email af­ter he had been told the file was al­ready on its way to The Cana­dian Press, which had re­quested it.

“ Well un­re­lease it,” Togneri said in a July 27 email to a se­nior of­fi­cial in the depart­ment’s Ac­cess to In­for­ma­tion sec­tion.

“ What’s the point of ask­ing for my opin­ion if you’re just go­ing to release it!”

The doc­u­ment was an an­nual re­port on Pub­lic Works’ mas­sive real-es­tate port­fo­lio, which con­tained fac­tual in­for­ma­tion on high va­cancy rates and weak re­turns on in­vest­ment. Such re­ports had never been made pub­lic be­fore.

The depart­ment’s real-es­tate branch had con­sented to the full release, and the Ac­cess to In­for­ma­tion of­fice at Pub­lic Works had de­ter­mined af­ter ex­ten­sive con­sul­ta­tion that there was no le­gal ba­sis to with­hold any of the re­port.

The file, though, was deemed “sen­si­tive” — partly be­cause it was a me­dia re­quest — and was sent to the Con­ser­va­tive min­is­ter’s of­fice for re­view. The of­fice ini­tially gave the green light, but had a change of heart on the very day it was be­ing mailed out.

Togneri in­sisted that only one small sec­tion of the re­port be re­leased, de­spite the uni­form view among Ac­cess to In­for­ma­tion of­fi­cials that the en­tire 137-page doc­u­ment could not be with­held un­der the leg­is­la­tion.

The mat­ter was even­tu­ally brought to the at­ten­tion of the depart­ment’s di­rec­tor-gen­eral, Sylvia Seguin-Brant, who wrote a mem­o­ran­dum ar­gu­ing that de­spite ob­jec­tions from the min­is­ter’s of­fice, the en­tire re­port should in­deed be re­leased.

“The de­ci­sion has been made in a fair, rea­son­able and im­par­tial man­ner with re­spect to the pro­cess­ing of this re­quest,” she wrote, re­fer­ring to the bu­reau­crats’ han­dling of the file.

The de­ci­sion to release the en­tire doc­u­ment was made af­ter con­sult­ing with Jus­tice Depart­ment lawyers.

In the end, though, the depart­ment re­leased only a heav­ily cen­sored ver­sion just as Togneri had in­sisted — 82 days later than al­lowed un­der the law. The fi­nal release in­cluded just 30 pages.

In­ter­nal doc­u­ments show­ing how Pub­lic Works han­dled the file were re­leased to The Cana­dian Press un­der the Ac­cess to In­for­ma­tion Act.

The in­ci­dent is rem­i­nis­cent of an­other Pub­lic Works re­port, on the spon­sor­ship scan­dal, re­quested by a Globe and Mail re­porter a decade ago.

The Gomery Com­mis­sion into the scan­dal de­ter­mined in 2004 that the min­is­ter’s of­fice tried to in­ter­fere with the release of the re­port. In that case, the se­nior pub­lic ser­vant in charge of Ac­cess to In­for­ma­tion, Anita Lloyd, de­cided the move was un­eth­i­cal and il­le­gal.

Af­ter con­sult­ing her per­sonal lawyer three times, Lloyd re­fused to sign off on the file.

When her re­sis­tance be­came widely known, she was hailed as a hero for stand­ing up to her po­lit­i­cal mas­ters, when the depart­ment was headed by then Lib­eral min­is­ter Al­fonso Gagliano.

The lat­est in­ci­dent is a rare glimpse into the murky world of so-called “am­ber-lighted” or “red­flagged” Ac­cess to In­for­ma­tion re­quests, terms ap­plied to files the gov­ern­ment deems po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive and which are sub­ject to close re­view by a min­is­ter’s po­lit­i­cal staff.

Paradis was shuf­fled last month to the Nat­u­ral Re­sources port­fo­lio, tak­ing Togneri with him as his di­rec­tor of par­lia­men­tary af­fairs.

Togneri did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

Paradis’ cur­rent com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor said Togneri’s in­ter­ven­tion was to sug­gest the Ac­cess to In­for­ma­tion sec­tion of­fer fewer pages to the re­quester without charge rather than the en­tire 137 pages for a fee of $27.40, which had al­ready been paid.

“He went through and thought that a huge sec­tion of a very big re­port wasn’t rel­e­vant and that you should be given the op­tion of pay­ing to get it or get the (smaller) chap­ter” without charge, Mar­gaux Stastny said in an in­ter­view.

“No one can over­rule Ac­cess of­fi­cers.”

The op­tions were never pro­vided to the re­quester, how­ever. In­stead, the depart­ment sim­ply sent the cen­sored re­port and re­funded the fee.

Stastny said she could not ex­plain why Togneri’s in­ter­ven­tion caused Pub­lic Works to miss its leg­is­lated dead­line by 82 days. “There should not have been a sig­nif­i­cant de­lay.”

The Cana­dian Press com­plained last Oc­to­ber about the ap­par­ent po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence at Pub­lic Works to the in­for­ma­tion com­mis­sioner of Canada. The com­plaint was fast-tracked last week when the of­fice de­ter­mined the file raises sig­nif­i­cant is­sues re­lated to the ac­count­abil­ity of gov­ern­ment, said spokes­woman San­dra Ge­orge.

A lawyer spe­cial­iz­ing in the Ac­cess to In­for­ma­tion Act called the case “trou­bling,” say­ing it was un­prece­dented.

“ This is a man­i­fes­ta­tion of po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence with the ad­min­is­tra­tive pro­cesses,” Michel Dra­peau said in an in­ter­view.

“I’ve never in my ca­reer seen a min­is­ter ba­si­cally do or tell a bu­reau­crat how to do his job and how to ap­ply the law.”

Seguin-Brant’s memo on whether to release the en­tire doc­u­ment did con­sider whether The Cana­dian Press­might be per­suaded to ac­cept a par­tial release if fees were waived.

But there were dan­gers, she said.

“Since he is from the me­dia, he would likely want to know why he can­not get the en­tire record and what it con­tains be­fore agree­ing to re­ceive the rel­e­vant sec­tion only,” she wrote.

“Noth­ing can stop the re­quester from ob­tain­ing ac­cess to the doc­u­ment. He may per­ceive this as though the depart­ment is not be­ing open and trans­par­ent, and is try­ing to with­hold in­for­ma­tion that can be dis­closed.”

Af­ter re­ceiv­ing the cen­sored re­port and com­plain­ing to the in­for­ma­tion com­mis­sioner, The Cana­dian Press re­quested and re­ceived the re­main­der of the re­port.

The full re­port showed, among other things, that Pub­lic Works’ re­pair and main­te­nance costs for its build­ing port­fo­lio is much higher than in the pri­vate sec­tor, as are va­cancy rates.

The doc­u­ment showed that the av­er­age va­cancy rate in Pub­lic Works-man­aged real es­tate was 5.1 per cent, far above its in­ter­nal tar­get of 3.5 per cent.

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