The Opposition Wildrose say there was political interference in the processing of its information requests related to the awarding of a controversial tobacco-litigation contract by Premier Alison Redford.

Documents obtained by the Wildrose show direct political knowledge of, and involvement in, the processing of the FOI requests by the Wildrose and others.

In one email, former Justice deputy minister Ray Bodnarek thanks the department’s FOI manager, Sharon Jackson, for telling him about the FOI request.  Jackson also revealed the identity of the requester, which may be a breach of the provincial FOI Act.

In a follow-up email, Bodnarek tells a communications adviser: “Given the sensitivity on this one, I suggest Minister’s office be given a courtesy heads-up as well as Jay O’Neill.”  O’Neill was then Redford’s communications director. It’s not known if the premier’s office was notified.

But internal emails show Justice Minister Jonathan Denis’s office was given more than a “heads-up.” The minister’s chief of staff, Mat Steppan, the most senior political official in Denis’s office, was allowed to vet and approve the final release of the documents.

Bodnarek also reviewed the documents. He was recently appointed as a judge of the provincial court.

In a scrum at the legislature last week, Denis denied there was any political interference.

“Actually, no one from my office has directly interfered with this whatsoever,” Denis said. “What happened was that there was one email sent from the FOIP coordinator (Sharon Jackson) to my office, which we have no control over, and the reply back; we did not seek to interfere with the process in any way, shape or form.”

Internal emails, however, clearly show there was ongoing communications between Jackson and Steppan, and that Steppan was directly involved in the processing of the request.

Denis declined several interview requests from CBC News over the past several days.

Chief of staff vetted documents

Wildrose justice critic Shayne Saskiw said the documents clearly show political interference.

“We saw his chief of staff determine whether or not documents were released,” Saskiw said. “There was political interference.

“It looks like the justice minister is part of this political interference, in trying to cover up the facts.”

Ottawa lawyer Michel Drapeau is an expert in access to information. He said it is appropriate to tell a minister’s office documents are to be released and generally what is in the documents. But Drapeau said there should have been no political involvement in the processing of the FOI requests.

“It was improper for the coordinator to basically go forward, reveal the request, the records that would be disclosed, and to be asking a political official to basically bless the action she is about to make,” Drapeau said.

Drapeau said Jackson’s job was simply to apply the law about what could, and could not, be disclosed and she should not have sought any input from Steppan.

“The rule is that you disclose as much as possible, not as much as what the political forces want you to,” said Drapeau, who has authored two books about access to information.

Conflict of interest

He said Jackson, an experienced FOI manager, should have known better than to place herself in a conflict, by “checking with the political powers whether or not she would give the requester, who is the client in this case, the full benefit and entitlement that the law allows him to have.”

After viewing the internal emails, Drapeau said political involvement in FOI processing within Alberta Justice, “comes across to me as a standing operating procedure, whereby the coordinator goes to the chief of staff, which is as high as it gets (politically).”

In an email to CBC News, Jackson said she sent the email only to alert the justice minister’s office about the release of the documents.

 “I was not seeking or expecting direction,” she said, adding that the final decision on which documents were released was made by justice FOI coordinator Richard Marks.

Wildrose justice critic Shayne Saskiw said they will be filing a complaint next week with Alberta’s information commissioner .

In May 2012, CBC News first revealed that a consortium of law firms awarded a potentially lucrative tobacco-litigation contract included a Calgary firm with close personal and political ties. A partner in the law firm is Redford’s ex-husband, Robert Hawkes, who also served as the leader of her transition team after she won the Conservative leadership in October 2011.

In late November 2012, a CBC News investigation revealed Redford, as justice minister, had personally awarded the contract to the consortium that included her ex-husband’s firm.

Alberta ethics commissioner Neil Wilkinson recently issued a report which cleared Redford of any conflict of interest, despite the fact he contradicted the premier’s claim she did not make the decision to award the contract. The report has been savaged by opposition party critics, who have publicly voiced their lack of trust in Wilkinson, in large part due to his well-known ties to the Tory party before his appointment.