The Information Commissioner of Canada has found evidence of “systemic interference” with access to information requests by three Conservative staff members, and suggests the law might have been broken.
Suzanne Legault delivered her second report Thursday following an investigation into cases that date back to 2009 in the office of cabinet minister Christian Paradis, who held the Public Works portfolio at the time.
She had already found against one staff member, Sebastien Togneri, in a previous investigation that was sparked by a Canadian Press access-to-information request.
Togneri resigned in 2010 after The Canadian Press reported he had been involved in other cases of meddling, noting that the names of colleagues Marc Toupin and Jillian Andrews also turned up in emails about withholding information.
Legault looked at more cases, and found that Togneri, Toupin and Andrews in Paradis’ office at the time interfered in five other instances.
Andrews currently works as a senior aide in the office of Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq. It is not clear if Toupin is still in the government’s employ.
“Through the investigation that is the subject of this report, I found a pattern of improper involvement by a small group of ministerial staff members at (Public Works) in responding to requests under the Access to Information Act,” Legault wrote in her report.
“These staffers inserted themselves in various ways into a process that was designed to be carried out in an objective manner by public servants. Consequently, the rights conferred under the Act were compromised.”
Legault says there is evidence a possible offence has been committed.
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.
But Legault again noted her dismay that she cannot refer matters to the Attorney General of Canada for investigation herself, since ministerial offices and their staff are not covered by the Act.
Instead, she is referring the matter to current Public Works Minister Diane Finley, who in turn could choose to bring in the RCMP.
In the case of Togneri, former Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose referred the matter to the Mounties, but no charges were ever laid.
The department also undertook to make changes to how it handles access to information after the Togneri report, which Legault said are being implemented.
She made a pointed reference to the responsibility of ministers and top bureaucrats to make sure the access to information system is protected.
“The integrity and neutrality of the access system depends on strong leadership from the top,” she wrote.
“Ministers and senior managers must ensure their employees know their responsibilities with regard to access to information, and the limitations on their roles.”