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Christian Paradis is sworn in as Minister of Natural Resources at Rideau Hall on Jan. 19, 2010. (Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press)
Christian Paradis is sworn in as Minister of Natural Resources at Rideau Hall on Jan. 19, 2010. (Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press)

Disclosure watchdog pounces as aide to Christian Paradis falls on sword Add to ...

Canada's information watchdog may widen an already lengthy probe into political interference following the abrupt resignation of an aide to a Conservative cabinet minister.

Sebastien Togneri tendered his own pink slip late Thursday after The Canadian Press reported he had meddled in at least four Access to Information Act requests.

The information commissioner of Canada, Suzanne Legault, said she is reviewing 1,000 pages of fresh documents related to Mr. Togneri to consider whether to open a new investigation or widen an existing one.

"I'm very concerned about these allegations," she said in an interview Friday after receiving a file from Public Works.

Mr. Togneri was already under investigation by Ms. Legault's office and a House of Commons committee for ordering senior civil servants at Public Works to censor a document requested by The Canadian Press under the act.

"Well, unrelease it," Mr. Togneri said in a terse July 2009 email - prompting a senior official to dash to the department mailroom to retrieve the 137-page report on Public Works' real-estate portfolio.

And this week, more emails surfaced that showed Mr. Togneri attempted to suppress information to be released in at least three other access-to-information requests last year. One was for documents about the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama to Ottawa, another dealt with asbestos exports.

"Please exclude the following that is highlighted," he told one access officer at Public Works. Another email from him said: "I encourage the ATIP department to remove everything but the work order."

Political staff have no authority to order documents censored and can only review material to help prepare the minister for embarrassing disclosures.

The act forbids anyone to "direct, propose, counsel or cause any person" to conceal a record, with a maximum penalty of $10,000 and two years in jail. No one has yet been convicted under the section.

Mr. Togneri's boss, cabinet minister Christian Paradis, deflected demands Friday for his own resignation after opposition MPs noted the Harper government insisted earlier this year that ministers - not their staff - were responsible for misconduct in their departments.

But Dimitri Soudas, spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said there's no contradiction.

"Ministers are responsible to Parliament for their ministry, their department and everything else," he said.

"Individuals are also accountable for their own personal responsibilities ... In this case the staffer resigned, therefore he's no longer an employee, therefore no longer works, therefore that's the responsibility that the minister is holding accountable."

Mr. Soudas added that Mr. Paradis can be held accountable in Parliament by answering any questions posed by MPs.

Mr. Paradis, the Natural Resources Minister, provided few answers in the Commons on Friday, repeatedly saying he had turned over the new material about Mr. Togneri's vetting of access requests to the information commissioner.

"I quickly took the file and I asked the minister of public works to take the file and to send it to the information commissioner, which was done," he said.

Liberal MP Marcel Proulx called the case potentially criminal. "This practice was widespread within the minister's office," he said in the Commons.

"Documents prove that a number of the minister's senior staff took part in this systematic, misleading and illegal cover up."

Ms. Legault's office is already investigating three specific complaints of alleged political interference with the processing of Access to Information Act requests. One deals with Mr. Togneri at Public Works. The others involved National Defence and Foreign Affairs. All three were launched in February.

And Ms. Legault revealed Friday that a more broad-ranging probe into interference was begun this summer because of anecdotal evidence she received from several departments while she was doing annual report cards on them.

"When we did the report cards this year, we did have some issues based on some of the oral evidence that we had gathered," she said. "Sufficiently so that I was concerned and I wanted to dig into it."

Ms. Legault declined to provide details about the allegations of interference, but said the larger probe by a six-person unit is expected to be completed next year.

The revelation of other alleged instances of political interference suggests the problem may be far wider than has come to light so far.

Ms. Togneri had testified at a Commons committee earlier this year that he interfered in an access file just once and called his actions "stupid" and a "mistake."

The Public Works bureaucrat in charge of Access to Information Act requests also suggested at the same committee that the initial interference by Mr. Togneri was the only time it had happened.

"This was an extraordinary circumstance," Tom Makichuk testified in June. "This particular request had not followed the normal path."

It was Mr. Makichuk himself who dashed to the departmental mailroom to retrieve the unstamped package bound for The Canadian Press, after Mr. Togneri ordered its "unrelease."

Mr. Togneri's actions violated government-wide policy, which was reiterated by Guy Giorno, Harper's chief of staff, in a Feb. 2 memo circulated to all ministers' offices.

"No political staff member has authority to make access to information decisions," he wrote.

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