Conservatives are fighting a move to review Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Office policy to immediately delete e-mails of staff who leave, after e-mails related to the RCMP investigation into Senator Mike Duffy's expenses were thought for months to have been permanently lost.
An NDP motion at the Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics committee Tuesday morning asked for a study on whether Access to Information laws were broken by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) policy. The motion also asked for Canada's information commissioner Suzanne Legault, PMO staff and officials of the Privy Council – a department reporting to the Prime Minister – to be invited to discuss the matter.
Paul Calandra, who is Mr. Harper's parliamentary secretary and one of the MPs who make up a Conservative majority on the committee, said Tuesday morning during the meeting that he won't support the NDP motion. As debate grew heated, Mr. Calandra eventually moved to go "in camera," or shut the meeting off to the public and media, and the Conservatives pushed that motion through.
The committee meeting ended as scheduled without a vote on the NDP motion, meaning debate will resume at the next meeting in the new year.
This particular case concerns the e-mails of Benjamin Perrin, a lawyer and adviser who worked in the PMO until earlier this year. RCMP documents, filed in court but unproven, alleged Mr. Perrin was a figure involved in discreet talks over repayment of Mr. Duffy's disputed expenses. Those expenses were later paid by Mr. Harper's then-chief-of-staff, Nigel Wright. RCMP have sought e-mail records from many figures, including Mr. Perrin, in their criminal investigation of the Wright-Duffy payment.
Mr. Perrin's e-mails were first said to have been deleted when he left the PMO to return to a job at the University of British Columbia, as per PMO policy.
Last month, however, after the RCMP asked yet again for the e-mails, the Privy Council discovered they, in fact, still had them, as they were in a "litigation hold" on an unrelated matter. A Privy Council official called it a simple oversight that kept the Perrin e-mails from RCMP for months.
Mr. Perrin played "a key role" in the Duffy-Wright deal, NDP MP Charlie Angus alleged on Tuesday, and those e-mail records are important to the investigations. Mr. Angus said a review is needed to see if the PMO's policy to delete e-mails – ultimately not carried out in the Perrin case – breaks the law.
"We don't know if these e-mails have been altered or interfered with," Mr. Angus said. "...It's not credible they lost track of the e-mails of the Prime Minister's lawyer."
Mr. Calandra rebutted the motion, saying the Privy Council has said the oversight in the case of Mr. Perrin was a mistake.
"That ridiculous speech is exactly why a committee like this is not the place for this important issue," Mr. Calandra said, defending the Privy Council, which reports to Mr. Harper. "I do not believe they are criminals. I do not believe they are liars. I do not believe they impeded an RCMP investigation. I believe them when they say they made a mistake."
The committee grew heated quickly on Tuesday, with the NDP and Conservatives exchanging barbs and points of order. Mr. Calandra then said committee chair Pat Martin, an NDP MP, was having trouble controlling the meeting, and then moved to put it in camera and force journalists out.
Mr. Martin protested, saying in camera rules are used too often to hide proceedings from the public, and called it a "disgrace." Conservative MPs then passed the motion. Afterwards, Mr. Martin noted that Mr. Harper and others were attending the funeral of Nelson Mandela while the committee was "trampling all over democracy."
Mr. Angus called the vote part of a cover-up. Conservatives have also blocked moves to seek testimony from a party senator and top fundraiser, Irving Gerstein, and a Deloitte official, Michael Runia, who RCMP allege tried to intervene into the Duffy audit through back channels by seeking confidential information.
"They will do whatever they have, because this is a very seriously wounded Prime Minister and this is a party deeply in trouble, so they're going to shut down accountability, they're going to shut down access," Mr. Angus said outside the meeting after it went in camera.
An RCMP criminal investigation could "take years," he said, and a separate study is needed on whether the PMO policy to delete e-mails is against the law. "Canadians right to access information is a constitutional right. The fact they're suppressing an investigation into this shows their political desperation."
The committee did not get to vote on a motion from Liberal Scott Andrews, to call in Mr. Gerstein and Mr. Runia. The vote will take place next year.