The opposition Wildrose says Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk misled the legislature when he claimed Alberta’s information commissioner endorsed a controversial government system for vetting freedom of information requests.
Under the system proposed by Lukaszuk last year when he was deputy premier, the political press secretaries for ministers would be allowed to vet all freedom of information (FOIP) requests and would be required to report any that might cause the ruling Conservative government “reputational issues.”
But a letter from Information and Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton, tabled by Lukaszuk himself, clearly does not endorse Lukaszuk’s system for vetting freedom of information (FOIP) requests. To the contrary, Clayton raised serious concerns that the former deputy minister’s system could increase the possibility of political interference in the process.
Referring to a Nov. 27, 2013, phone conversation between herself and Lukaszuk, Clayton said she had told him “that risk (of political interference) increases commensurate with a minister’s actual or perceived ability to influence or interfere with the release of information, including delaying a response to a request for access.”
Despite this, on Nov. 29, 2013, two days after the phone conversation, Lukaszuk issued a memo to then premier Alison Redford and all cabinet ministers which stated his vetting process “has been developed in collaboration with the Information and Privacy Commissioner.”
Lukaszuk claims Clayton okayed process
On Tuesday, Lukaszuk again claimed the information commissioner had approved his process and accused the Wildrose of employing the selective use of facts to twist the truth.
Wildrose MLA Shayne Saskiw said Clayton’s letter clearly shows it was Lukaszuk who misrepresented her position on the vetting process.
“The letter from the privacy commissioner clearly indicates that this process increases the environment for potential political interference and she really warned the government about the process,” Saskiw told CBC News in an interview.
“And apparently Thomas Lukaszuk sees this as a ringing endorsement of his process," he said. "That is factually incorrect and misleading, he misled the legislature when he said the privacy commissioner endorsed his perspective.”
The controversy arose after Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith rose in the legislature Tuesday to question the government about a leaked internal email.
The internal email refers to memo, circulated by Lukaszuk, when he was deputy premier, to then premier Alison Redford and cabinet ministers about freedom of information (FOIP) requests.
The Nov. 29, 2013, memo directed press secretaries to “gather information about active FOIP requests which have the potential to generate media, session, political or other reputational issues for the government.” The memo also directed this information be forwarded to his office by noon on Fridays.
In the legislature, Smith accused the government of direct political interference in the FOIP process, an allegation both interim Premier Dave Hancock and Lukaszuk brushed off.
“As information goes out the door,” Hancock said, “it would be prudent to be aware of what is going out the door, so you know how to respond to it when the people who get it, including the media or others, ask questions about it.”
Commissioner contradicts minister
The documents tabled in the legislature show Clayton appears to challenge how Lukaszuk represented her position in his Nov. 29 memo, and she reiterated the main points she said she communicated to him during their Nov. 27 phone conversation.
According to the letter, Lukaszuk had contacted her because the Tory government wanted to create a system for alerting ministers to the content of FOIP requests that were about to released.
But Clayton notes the system goes far beyond simply alerting the ministers. She noted that the information would be provided to the deputy premier and premier which, she said, “increases the potential risk of allegations of interference in the release of information.”
Clayton also questioned the need for ministers to provide “mitigating strategies and messages” for potentially controversial FOIP requests.
In his memo, Lukaszuk directed ministerial press secretaries, who are political staff not neutral civil servants, to review FOIP requests and “prepare key messages and mitigating strategies where appropriate.”
Clayton expressed concern that the involvement of press secretaries in the vetting process would delay the processing of information requests until “mitigating strategies and messages" are finalized. She was also concerned that ministry FOIP processing units, which are already understaffed, would be further burdened by having to provide information to the press secretaries.
“As you go forward with the implementation of this new process, I urge you to be aware of the potential for abuse and to remain vigilant in ensuring this process does not in any way influence or interfere with the processing of FOIP requests,” Clayton wrote.
The FOIP Act is currently being reviewed by transparency and accountability minister Donald Scott. It’s not known when Scott will issue his recommendations.