Political staffers vetted freedom of information requests, documents show
Internal documents obtained by CBC News appear to contradict claims by Premier Dave Hancock and Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, who argue there is no political involvement in freedom of information requests that are reviewed by political staff days before they are released.
The documents also appear to confirm several major concerns over the potential for political interference made by Jill Clayton, Alberta's privacy commissioner, which were laid out in a Dec. 6 letter to then-Deputy Premier Lukaszuk.
Clayton wrote the letter in response to a memo circulated by Lukaszuk which detailed a new process for vetting FOIP requests, supposedly in order to ensure ministers knew what information was about to be released.
Lukaszuk claimed Clayton had “collaborated” on the new process, a claim Clayton’s letter clearly dispels.
Lukaszuk’s 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.
Lukaszuk denies meddling allegations
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith raised the issue in the legislature Tuesday, accusing the government of political meddling in what is supposed to be a neutral FOIP process.
- Minister Thomas Lukaszuk accused of misleading legislature
- Thomas Lukaszuk accused of interfering with FOIP requests
Both Hancock and Lukaszuk brushed off the allegation, saying there was no political interference. They said ministers simply needed to be informed of what was in the FOIP records a few days before their release so they could properly respond to questions from the opposition and media.
The documents, obtained by CBC News through a FOIP request, are “key messages,” commonly known as talking points, which were produced for Health Minister Fred Horne by Bart Johnson, who was his press secretary, and by Public Affairs Bureau staff, who are supposed to be apolitical.
The documents appear to confirm Clayton’s concerns about Lukaszuk’s proposed vetting process.
In her letter, Clayton said the “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.”
Clayton raised numerous concerns, saying she did not think it was appropriate for the process to identify the type of applicant, such as opposition party or media.
[The 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.”- Jill Clayton, Alberta Information and Privacy Commissioner
She also questioned the need for ministers, through their press secretaries, to provide “mitigating strategies and messages” for potentially controversial FOIP requests.
She 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.
Memos confirm FOIP commissioner's concerns
The documents obtained by CBC News are actually from Alberta Health Services (AHS), which is separate from Alberta Health.
However, Horne’s press secretary was allowed to review the documents after they were vetted by AHS staff – but before they were released to the applicants.
A “key messages” memo entitled, “executive expense claims,” is dated Dec. 13, 2012. It provides Horne with detailed information about what is in the records to be released.
Produced by Horne’s press secretary, Bart Johnson, the first line of the memo states that the FOIP records will be released on Monday, Feb. 11 to “an opposition party.”
The memo shows Johnson and Horne had direct access to the AHS records two months before they were to be released. Under the FOIP act, documents are to be released within 30 days, which means an extension appears to have been taken by Alberta Health Services to facilitate Johnson’s vetting of the records.
Johnson also knew the exact date of release and identified for Horne that the information would be released to an opposition party.
Also on Dec. 13, 2012, Johnson produced “key messages” for Horne entitled “Internal and External Expense Audits,” which are similar to what Lukaszuk referred to as “mitigating strategies and messages.”
Another memo created by Bart Johnson, entitled, “Former health ministers expenses released,” provides talking points for Horne related to expenses for Hancock and Ron Liepert.
The memo directly informs Horne that the FOIP records are being released to the Canadian Taxpayers’ Foundation (sic). The memo even provides Horne with the exact wording of the federation’s information request.
Documents vetted by press secretary
Although the memos produced by Johnson were obtained by CBC through an information request to AHS, it appears several were vetted by someone in Alberta Health who redacted sections from the documents.
The CBC sought a review from the FOI commissioner’s office, which directed the redactions be reversed. In each case, the redactions appeared to be political in nature.
For example, in one memo, this talking point about the closure of the Little Bow Continuing Care Centre (Carmangay) by Johnson was redacted:
“It’s disappointing, although not surprising, to see the Opposition using these seniors to try gain political points. Their use of inflammatory language and fear mongering to attempt to gain the attention of the media is irresponsible.”
Johnson declined an interview request, but in an email said it was appropriate for him to review FOIP requests in order to apprise his minister of upcoming issues.
He wrote that “at no time did I determine what information should or shouldn’t be released, amend the content of what was being released, or affect the timing of the release.
“Knowing what is in a FOIP release and briefing a Minister about that does not in any way amount to interfering with the process or with the disclosure of the records.”
Another talking points memo was created for Horne by Carol Chawrun, his communications director.
The media applicant was CBC News Edmonton, and the memo shows Chawrun had been given access to the records after they were vetted by Covenant Health.
In the memo, Chawrun produces a talking point for Horne explaining how, when he was associate minister, he came to be with an executive from a health region who had expensed a meal.