The New Democrats have asked the province’s information commissioner to investigate whether Alberta Infrastructure deliberately withheld, or purposely did not create, documents related to the controversial penthouse suite once planned for former premier Alison Redford.
The NDP also questions why senior bureaucrats directly involved in commissioning the suite, and keeping its existence secret, were allowed to vet freedom of information (FOIP) documents related to the penthouse before their release.
- Alison Redford ordered penthouse suite in Federal Building
- Alison Redford’s penthouse plans extended into late 2013
A FOIP request from the NDP to Alberta Infrastructure asked for records about the penthouse, now commonly known as Skypalace. They were surprised their request yielded no documents about its cancellation.
“And so the question is, are they refusing to produce these documents?” NDP MLA Deron Bilous said. “Or are there no documents? In which case there is no absolutely no paper trail for a project on which hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent.”
Bilous told reporters Wednesday he has asked Information and Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton to expand her current investigation into how the government processes FOIP requests to include his party’s Skypalace request.
The scope of Clayton’s investigation, announced last week, is not known, but Clayton has said she will look into allegations of political interference in the system.
In late March, CBC News revealed Redford had personally ordered a luxury, taxpayer-funded suite to be built on the top floor of the provincial Edmonton Federal Building, now under renovation. The design plans included a guest hosting area, a private study and work space, and “sleeping and grooming quarters with clothing storage for an adult and one teenager.” Redford has a young daughter.
At the time, then-infrastructure minister Ric McIver said he had heard “rumours” of the suite when he took over the ministry in December, 2013. He said he toured the Federal Building in January 2014, and ordered staff to cancel any plans for an apartment.
Infrastructure Deputy Minister Marcia Nelson confirmed that version of events during a Public Accounts Committee meeting last week.
On Wednesday, Infrastructure press secretary Parker Hogan provided more detail. He said McIver specifically called Nelson and directed her to end the private penthouse construction.
But Bilous said it is inconceivable McIver’s orders to Nelson would not have generated any internal government records, such as emails or memos to staff or architects or contractors.
““All we have got is the minister, or former minister, Ric McIver’s word that he cancelled it, but no documents proving that,” he said.
Hogan said he couldn’t explain why neither Nelson, or anyone else in the department, apparently did not produce any documents related to the cancelling of the project.
He told CBC that question would have to be directed to the department. A CBC News FOIP request also produced no documents related to how, or why, the Skypalace project was cancelled.
Department insiders allowed to vet Skypalace documents
Another document obtained by the NDP also shows senior Infrastructure officials, directly involved in planning the premier’s penthouse, were allowed to vet Skypalace (FOIP) records before their release.
Kent Phillips, executive director of government facilities, was one of six department bureaucrats who approved the release of the records generated by the NDP’s request.
CBC News reported in March that Phillips acted as a liaison with the City of Edmonton’s planning department on the suite. The records show Phillips was prepared to try overrule a city official to keep the penthouse secret.
“I politely reminded (the official) that the Government of Alberta does not actually require a Development Permit as the more senior level of government and that no public notice could be issued for security reasons,” Phillips wrote in an internal Aug. 23, 2012 email.
Bilous said Phillips, and others in the department, should never have been allowed to sign off on the freedom of information documents.
“That is a real serious conflict, or potential conflict of interest,” he said.
“The very people who were the decision makers on Skypalace in terms of pushing it through, are the ones that are now the gatekeepers of information on what was approved, who approved it, and who decided to end the project,” Bilous told CBC News.