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Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino has called it a mistake on the part of his staff that they didn’t tell him of serial killer Paul Bernardo's move in the first place.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The federal Public Safety Department is defending a decision by its top officials not to contact the minister directly about the transfer of notorious serial killer Paul Bernardo to a medium-security prison.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino has for weeks been dealing with the fallout from the Correctional Service of Canada’s decision to move Bernardo in late May from a maximum-security prison in Ontario to an institution in Quebec known for offering treatment programs for sex offenders.

The prison service later confirmed it first notified the minister’s office at least three months before Bernardo was moved, and again in the days leading up to his transfer, but Mendicino said he was unaware until the day after it happened.

Emails obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act show Anne Kelly, the federal corrections commissioner, also told Shawn Tupper, the deputy minister of public safety, and Tricia Geddes, the associate deputy minister, three days ahead of time.

At the time, Tupper responded by thanking Kelly for her confirmation.

Asked repeatedly why neither of the senior officials raised the matter directly with Mendicino, a spokesman for the department said “neither deputy had reason to believe the minister was not aware based on the information they had.”

“As part of her normal practice, the Commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada informed the minister’s office, the associate (deputy minister) and the deputy minister of the decision that had been made in this case,” Tim Warmington wrote.

“It is not the normal practice for the deputies to be involved in operational decisions of the (correctional service).”

Before the House of Commons rose for a summer break,Mendicino announced he would be issuing a directive instructing federal corrections to ensure the public safety minister is “formally and directly notified in advance of the transfer of any high profile or dangerous offenders.”

The federal Conservatives have demanded that he resign over his handling of the matter, and insist he issue a similar directive instructing the prison system to ensure that multiple murderers are forced to serve out the entirety of their sentences in maximum-security prison.

That’s contrary to its current practice, in which an inmate’s security classification undergoes reviews over time.

The Liberal government, for its part, has not ruled out any options but has said caution must be exercised to ensure political leaders are not meddling with the operational independence of the correctional service.

“Mendicino was responsible and must resign,” Conservative public safety critic Raquel Dancho said in a statement late Monday, accusing the minister of refusing “to lift a finger to stop” the transfer.

Mendicino has called it a mistake on the part of his staff that they didn’t tell him of Bernardo’s move in the first place. He has offered little to explain why he was kept in the dark, and has not said whether anyone has since been disciplined.

According to her internal emails released to The Canadian Press, Kelly wrote to Geddes and Tupper on June 6, two days after the minister released a first public statement on the matter that expressed shock and outrage.

Kelly inquired whether the minister’s office had been advised of the move, noting she was getting the same question from the Privy Council Office, the administrative arm of the federal cabinet.

“I understand from my staff that someone at (the Public Safety Department) said (the minister) had not been notified,” she wrote in an e-mail with the subject line “PRIVATE – Transfer.”

“We have a notification process in place as you know and we certainly followed it.”

Bernardo is serving a life sentence for the kidnapping, torture and murder of 15-year-old Kristen French and 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy in the early 1990s near St. Catharines, Ont. He was also convicted of manslaughter in the December 1990 death of 15-year-old Tammy Homolka, the younger sister of his then-wife, Karla Homolka. Bernardo also ultimately admitted to sexually assaulting 14 other women.

Karla Homolka pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was released in 2005 after completing a 12-year sentence for her role in the crimes committed against French and Mahaffy.

Bernardo spent nearly three decades in maximum security – first at Kingston Penitentiary and then Millhaven Institution near Kingston, Ont. He was transferred to medium-security La Macaza Institution, about 190 kilometres northwest of Montreal, on May 29.

The federal correctional service said his transfer and new security classification remains under review by a three-person panel. In June, Mendicino had said he had hoped that review would be finished within about two weeks.

“We are working to ensuring that this review is done in a thorough and complete manner to help provide Canadians with answers to the questions they have,” spokesman Kevin Antonucci wrote in a recent e-mail. “We plan to publicly communicate the results of this review at the earliest opportunity.”

He added: “As we have stated before, at any point, an inmate can be placed, or returned to, a higher security level if deemed necessary to ensure the safety of the public or our institutions. And, depending on the results of the review, we will not hesitate to do so, if needed.”

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