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Politics House of Commons trying to stop release of e-mails on F-35 purchase

Lockheed F-35 AF1 joint strike fighter.

tom reynolds The Globe and Mail

A strange court battle is shaping up where the House of Commons is trying to stop Auditor-General Michael Ferguson from releasing e-mails, including preparations for his May testimony on the over-budget F-35 fighter purchase.

Lawyers for the House of Commons are asking a federal judge to prevent the spending watchdog from making public a slew of e-mails in response to an access-to-information request.

They point out that the Commons isn't bound by the Access to Information Act, which requires government departments to make public records requested as long as this information does not breach secrets or damage Canada's interests.

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"The Commons is constitutionally and legally independent from the federal government and is not subject to the act," the legal application says.

"By allowing the disclosure of documents created in the course of preparing for a parliamentary proceeding, the Office of the Auditor-General would be interfering with the House of Commons's constitutional rights and privileges to conduct its affairs without any interference."

Someone has requested the Auditor-General's office disclose any records between Jan. 17, 2012, and April 17, 2012, regarding Mr. Ferguson's appearance before Commons committees. This period would include preparations for Mr. Ferguson's May 15, 2012, testimony before the Commons committee on national defence regarding the controversial decision to buy American-made F-35 fighter jets.

The development of this cutting-edge war plane has been plagued by technical glitches and rising costs that have pushed the expected final price tag beyond what Ottawa has budgeted.

The Prime Minister's Office moved quickly Tuesday to distance itself from effort to stop the release of the e-mails, saying it doesn't agree with what the Commons law clerk is doing.

"We don't believe this is covered by parliamentary privilege," Andrew MacDougall, director of communications for the Prime Minister, said via Twitter.

He said the Conservative government would support a motion to waive, or relinquish, parliamentary privilege, on the matter.

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Officials say the PMO is anxious to ensure Canadians don't think they're linked in any way to this attempt to block documents that might concern Mr. Ferguson's views on F-35s.

The Auditor-General's Office said it was not yet ready to comment on the legal application.

A spokeswoman for House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer did not respond to a request for comment.

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