Bill 29 means some pay and perks now off limits
Despite prior assurances, less information available to public about remuneration of government employees
Some Newfoundland and Labrador government agencies are now refusing to release previously available details about how much public employees take home above their base salaries.
The move comes despite assurances that wouldn't happen from senior government officials at the beginning of the Bill 29 debate.
"Those provisions of the act which enabled you to get that information now are unchanged," the then-deputy minister of justice, Donald Burrage, said in a June 11 news conference.
But a CBC News investigation has found that is not true.
This summer, to test the new law, CBC filed more than a dozen access-to-information requests with various government departments and agencies.
Several declined to release information related to pay or perks above the base salary.
In doing so, they cited a part of the law that actually did change after Bill 29.
The government, meanwhile, insists it is business as usual.
The new Office of Public Engagement now oversees access to information.
The minister in charge, Keith Hutchings, confirmed that only the base salary, or a salary range, plus a range of possible bonuses, are now available. "Any other information would not be provided," he said.
But Hutchings contended that was not a change from the pre-Bill 29 regime.
He said any release about perks under the old information law occurred because civil servants simply agreed to make their payments public.
"My understanding is that would be of a voluntary nature, if someone was requested for that information, of their own volition, they could provide that information," Hutchings said.
Those comments, however, do not stand up to a review of the text in the old law.
The relevant section dealt with mandatory redactions and disclosures, not voluntary ones.
The months-long CBC investigation found an array of benefits now off-limits, that were once public — "voluntary," or not.
Example number one: Len Simms.
Simms was appointed to the top job at the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation in 2005.
Since then, the former Tory leader has twice resigned to help run the party’s election campaign. Both times, he was reappointed shortly after the vote.
He now makes a base salary of just over $160,000, according to an employment contract released to CBC News following an access-to-information request.
But Simms also receives some other kind of payment as part of that contract.
It’s just not clear what.
The contract refers repeatedly to payments due under a clause of the document that has been entirely blacked out.
In fact, one of the paragraphs under the "services" section of Simms’s contract has also been redacted.
The reason for both blacked-out sections, according to NLHC : "the disclosure would be an unreasonable invasion of a third party’s personal privacy."
That’s new language added to the law by Bill 29.
It took the housing corporation nearly three months to respond to the CBC’s request for information. It is supposed to take 30 days.
CBC News sent follow-up emails to NLHC last month, asking how disclosure of the payment — and the service provided by Simms — would violate the CEO’s privacy.
On Tuesday, 27 days later, the housing corporation responded. NLHC spokeswoman Jenny Bowring noted that the blacked-out paragraphs contained "personal information, as defined by the Act, and as such is protected."
Bowring said the blacked-out paragraph under the "services" heading was put in the wrong section of the contract.
She indicated that the other blacked-out paragraph dealt with a payment related to RRSPs.
And she confirmed that NLHC was only releasing base salary, and employment contracts — not any bonuses and additional payments above the base.
There are a number of those potential payments.
Simms was eligible for performance pay of up to 10 per cent of his salary for the three years from 2009 through 2011, as part of a little-known incentive program for government executives.
According to his contract, Simms could also collect cash in lieu of unused paid leave upon terminating his employment. He left the job twice.
There is no information in the package provided to CBC News about how much of that cash Simms received, if any. He is entitled to six weeks of paid leave per year.
Information on benefits like those were made available before Bill 29.
And senior government officials stressed in June that things would stay the same afterwards.
Confusion at Bill 29 press conference
The Bill 29 technical briefing and press conference in June was a somewhat chaotic affair, with government officials refusing to provide reporters with the actual text of the law.
That decision led to some confusion about what parts of employee remuneration were still public — even for Justice Minister Felix Collins.
The former bureaucrat hired by the government to review the law, John Cummings, had recommended "that only the salary range of an employee may be disclosed and not the specific amount of remuneration."
Government officials said they accepted that recommendation by Cummings in Bill 29.
Previously, Cummings had acknowledged, the word "remuneration" had been interpreted "broadly," to include salary, overtime, vacation pay and work-related expenses, plus payroll and salary adjustments, and even entire employment contracts.
Bill 29 changed the word "remuneration" to "salary range" — something reporters didn’t know at the June technical briefing and news conference.
When asked at the time about things like bonuses and other additional payments, Justice Minister Felix Collins first said that only salaries and salary ranges would be released.
"With respect to all of the other information, that’s not covered by the act now, and what’s available now will be available then," Collins said June 11.
That, however, was not correct.
Pressed by a reporter, Collins first stuck with his initial opinion, then acknowledged he didn’t actually know.
"I’m not sure if it’s addressed in the law," Collins said. "I don’t think it is."
That's when the deputy minister, Donald Burrage, jumped in to stress that "provisions of the act which enabled you to get that information now are unchanged."
Several days after the release of the actual words in Bill 29, the Department of Justice issued a statement noting that past practice would continue to apply, despite the change in wording.
But the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation is not the only agency whose responses contradict those initial assurances.
Another government agency, the Research and Development Corporation, also redacted information about a payment made to CEO Glenn Janes for his RRSP.
Information on such payments to executives has been available in the past.
Eastern Health revealed in response to a 2009 access-to-information request that CEO Vickie Kaminski gets a $35,000 annual allowance for housing, travel and RRSPs.
And the health authority again provided the same information when asked this summer — after Bill 29 came into effect —because it had been released before.
No bonus amounts, no paid leave payouts
None of the agencies asked by CBC News would provide precise details on bonuses for their top employees.
That information was available before Bill 29.
Several years ago, reporters used the law to find out the exact bonus given to health care CEO George Tilley before he departed that job.
Now only a range of possible bonuses is provided.
That range was zero to five per cent of the salary for the CEO at Labrador-Grenfell Health, Central Health and Western Health.
And the bosses at the RDC, NLHC, Multi-Materials Stewardship Board and Workplace, Health, Safety and Compensation Commission were eligible for bonuses of up to 10 per cent of their annual salaries.
Unused paid leave payouts
Also withheld was the amount cashed out in unused paid leave.
When Labrador-Grenfell Health CEO Boyd Rowe retired earlier this year, for example, he received a paid leave payout.
But the health authority won’t say how much, citing the new section of the law.
That information has been released in the past.
Nalcor Energy confirmed for the St. John’s Telegram in 2010 that CEO Ed Martin took a payout of more than $110,000 for unused vacation time. (Nalcor was the only government agency that did not respond at all to the CBC’s recent series of access-to-information requests.)
Even today, at least one part of government – the legislative arm – continues to provide such data.
During the spending scandal, the house of assembly was the most opaque of institutions. Now it's among the most transparent.
Officials at the legislature outlined a wide array of payments made to political employees and contract workers.
The itemized list included their regular pay, severance pay, vacation pay, retro pay and pay in lieu of notice.
The level of detail went all the way down to the $3.79 one staffer got for an EI rebate.
Some remuneration still released
While several perks now appear off-limits — at least for departments and agencies surveyed by the CBC — other remuneration information still seems to be available.
That list includes:
- base salary (or a range, in some cases);
- severance payments;
- retroactive salary payments;
- car allowances.
With the new Office of Public Engagement now in charge of access to information, those involved with the Bill 29 debate are no longer playing a role.
The former justice minister, Felix Collins, was shuffled to the lower-profile portfolio of intergovernmental affairs last month.
And Donald Burrage is no longer the deputy minister; he was sworn in earlier this month as a Supreme Court judge.
The Tory government has long stressed its commitment to accountability and transparency.
Bill 29 resulted in a weeklong legislative filibuster, and public outrage over new restrictions placed on the release of information.