A former Liberal political staffer advised the Ontario government take “extreme action” as it battled the opposition over the release of documents on the costly cancellation of two gas-fired power plants last year.
The revelation, at a legislative committee probing the matter Tuesday, shed light on the Grits’ strategy to control the flow of information on the plants and contain the political fallout over the controversial decision.
David Phillips, former chief of staff to the government house leader, was charged last year with helping co-ordinate the response to opposition demands for files on the cancellations. The government initially delayed in releasing the documents, prompting the Progressive Conservatives to accuse then-energy minister Chris Bentley of contempt of parliament. Speaker Dave Levac, a Liberal, ruled against his own party, finding that there was enough evidence for the contempt proceedings against Mr. Bentley to proceed.
In a series of e-mails with fellow political staff, disclosed at the committee, Mr. Phillips gamed out a response. Among other things, he wrote that the government had to “manage the timing and manner of release of these documents so as to limit the negative communication…impact on the government” and “avoid having the matter come before the House for a debate/vote.”
On another occasion, he wrote that, if Mr. Levac would not suspend his ruling against Mr. Bentley and the Liberals, the government “should need to take some reasonably extreme action in the House.”
In the end, Mr. McGuinty prorogued the legislature, a course of action Mr. Phillips recommended, and resigned as premier.
Mr. Phillips defended the government, arguing that the Liberals didn’t just want to release all the documents at once because it could have jeopardized sensitive negotiations between the province and the company contracted to build one of the plants.
“I’m a political adviser, so obviously there are political considerations in the advice I provide,” he said. “But at the same time, they were fundamentally integrated with public policy consideration and parliamentary law and procedure.”
Asked what he meant by “extreme action,” Mr. Phillips said that there is a “range” of “procedural tools” that could have been used in the legislature, but would not say what they were.
Opposition MPPs charged that the Grits’ first concern was protecting the party rather than releasing information on the cancellations, which are estimated to have cost $585-million.
“They have done everything to benefit the Liberal Party and not the taxpayers of Ontario. They’ve gone to great pains to keep this information on the gas plant scandal from the public,” Progressive Conservative Energy Critic Vic Fedeli told reporters.
New Democrat House Leader Gilles Bisson lectured Mr. Phillips: “You tried, by your own admission in this document, to time the information coming out in such a way that it was less harmful to the government, and you were trying to avoid this matter coming before the House at all. This was all about damage control.” Mr. Phillips repeatedly shook his head and replied “No, sir.”
A group of civil servants also faced heavy criticism over their handling of gas plant documents Tuesday. In a report, Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian took bureaucrats at the Ministry of Government Services to task for not searching thoroughly enough when she asked them earlier this year to track down e-mails from Craig MacLennan, a former high-ranking political staffer who played a key role on the file.
“I remain saddened at the failure of [ministry] staff to dedicate adequate resources to provide accurate and complete information to my office during the course of my initial investigation,” Ms. Cavoukian wrote. “I am left with the inescapable conclusion that they did not take my investigation very seriously.”
Ms. Cavoukian probed the matter Mr. MacLennan told committee he erased all of his e-mails from his time as chief of staff to two energy ministers. Ms. Cavoukian’s initial report chastised staffers for deleting their e-mails and other gas plant-related documents.
At the time, government bureaucrats told her that the deleted e-mails could not be recovered.
But a few weeks later, after the committee told civil servants to look harder, discovered that tens of thousands of e-mails – including 39,000 from Mr. MacLennan alone – had actually been preserved. Mr. MacLennan’s e-mails were found on a secondary server civil servants did not bother to check when Ms. Cavoukian approached them. In fact, Ms. Cavoukian said, bureaucrats had not even told her that such a server existed.
In two letters to Ms. Cavoukian, the top civil servant at the ministry took the blame for the problems.
“I fully acknowledge that steps were taken in responding to the committee’s motion that also should have been taken in responding to the requests from your office,” deputy minister Kevin Costante wrote. “I accept this is fully the responsibility of [the ministry] and my staff and I sincerely apologize for the impact this has had on your investigation and report.”
There are no less than five different places – including shared drives, back-up tapes and the folders of some e-mail accounts – where gas plant-related e-mails have now been discovered, Ms. Cavoukian said.
Since last month, ministry staff have been combing through the back-up server and other e-mail repositories, and releasing batches of documents roughly every two weeks to the committee.