Bonus disclosures 101: what is public, and isn't

The CBC's Rob Antle untangles the threads of a bonus program for top civil servants, after a week of questioning in the legislature.

It’s an issue that was raised nearly every day in question period at the legislature this past week — bonuses for government employees.

The Opposition Liberals pounded the governing Tories, demanding to know how much civil servants — some of them with close ties to the ruling party — had received.

Bonus payments to civil servants were a hot topic during question period at the legislature this week. (CBC)

There was some confusion over what financial data can be made public.

Like many decisions involving the release of government information these days, the rules changed after the passage of Bill 29 — although the Tory administration has twisted itself into knots to say that law change was actually no change at all.

So here’s a little refresher on what the rules are for the release of that government data:

  • Pre-Bill 29, the law covered the "remuneration" of those drawing a paycheque from the government. The controversial new law changed that to "salary range," effectively putting extra payments like bonuses off-limits.
  • At a chaotic press conference to launch Bill 29 — officials declined to provide the actual text of the law to reporters who were supposed to be asking questions about it — the then-deputy minister of justice insisted disclosure of pay and perks would remain unchanged.
  • To test that assertion, CBC News filed a dozen open-records requests for various employees’ pay packages. Specific bonus data was excluded; it had been released before Bill 29.

This past week in the legislature, the Liberals began querying the government about bonuses — specifically those paid to Ross Reid and Len Simms, key Tory campaign organizers who now work in the civil service.

Questions batted aside

On Tuesday, Premier Kathy Dunderdale batted aside Liberal questions for their specific bonus information, steering inquiries to government financial documents — documents that don’t contain that level of detail.

The next day, Finance Minister Jerome Kennedy took questions from the Opposition.

Here’s what Kennedy said in the house on Wednesday, when asked specifically about bonuses to Simms and Reid:

"This bonus program was brought in a number of years ago, Mr. Speaker. It could be up to 10 per cent of base salary. There were a number of individuals at the deputy minister or equivalent level.

Finance Minister Jerome Kennedy handled Opposition questions about bonuses during question period this past week. (CBC)

"I have spoken or had — I did not speak personally, but we have spoken to both Mr. Reid and Mr. Simms and they have no problem releasing the amounts that they were paid in terms of their bonuses. Mr. Simms received a bonus of $10,315.31 — a very good deal, at that, I would say to you, sir — and Mr. Reid received a bonus of $5,939.50.

"There is no secrecy, Mr. Speaker. All we are trying to do is we are outlining the work that has been done. This information was provided to The Telegram in an ATIPP request; back in Oct. 18 it began and we responded again after Christmas."

Given the fact that the CBC has its request for such information flatly rejected last fall — Simms was on the list of the dozen or so bureaucrats surveyed, but not Reid — the apparent news that their exact bonus payment amounts had been previously disclosed to a media outlet was a bit of a surprise.

But it turns out the minister was referring to a separate access-to-information request for general information on bonus payments issued by the government to any employee. That request had nothing to do with Simms or Reid specifically.

And it wasn’t The Telegram that asked for the information. It was the CBC. (Kennedy’s office later issued a press release to clarify his comments in the house.)

What we learned

So what did that CBC News request turn up? No actual exact bonus payment amounts, only the existence of the program for deputy ministers and equivalents, a range of possible payments, and the average percentage and amounts doled out as part of the program.

"The specific amount of performance pay provided to individuals under the program is withheld pursuant to section 30(4)(f) of the [act] as it is information related to personnel evaluation," the response noted, citing a part of the law that changed post-Bill 29.

Simms and Reid are among those who qualify under the program. The department later indicated the financial incentives would be cut this coming year, due to fiscal restraint measures.

The Opposition calls this is a "secret" program. The Tories say that’s not the case.

The truth lies somewhere in between.

It may not have been a secret, but the government did not do much to make it widely known. It took the Department of Finance 3-1/2 months to acknowledge its existence, in response to a CBC News access-to-information request.