The federal government has called in the RCMP to investigate political interference by a Conservative staffer in an access-to-information request.
Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose has asked the Mounties to probe the actions of Sebastien Togneri, who worked for Christian Paradis when Paradis was minister of the department.
In July 2009, Togneri demanded that Public Works officials "unrelease" a document that was about to be sent to The Canadian Press, and then to censor it heavily. The withheld document was a 133-page annual report on how well the department manages its massive real estate portfolio, and had relatively few criticisms.
Ambrose asked for the police probe after a year-long investigation by Canada's information commissioner found that Togneri clearly interfered with the request when he had no legal authority to do so.
Suzanne Legault's 15-page report into the complaint by The Canadian Press also found that all but one public servant handling the request failed in their duties to uphold the law.
Legault's damaging findings — released exclusively to The Canadian Press on Monday as the complainant — are to be formally presented to Parliament next week in a special report.
Togneri admitted his "mistake" before a parliamentary committee last year, and he and other Public Works officials called the incident an isolated case. He later resigned after The Canadian Press reported on other access-to-information requests in which he appeared to have interfered. He could not be immediately reached for comment.
Ambrose said in a brief release Monday that the decision to abide by the commissioner's recommendation "is consistent with our government's commitment to openness, transparency and accountability."
"Let me be clear, no current member of this government is involved in this case. Our government expects all public servants and political aides to abide by the Access to Information Act."
Legault cannot make findings of criminal responsibility, but her report Monday recommended that Ambrose call in the Mounties, in addition to making administrative changes.
Section 67 of the Access to Information Act forbids anyone to "direct, propose, counsel or cause any person" to conceal a record, with a maximum penalty of $10,000 and two years in jail. No one has yet been convicted under the section, which was added in 1999.
Legault's intensive probe of the Togneri case uncovered a so-called "purple file" process at Public Works, by which the minister's political staff reviewed potentially damaging access releases at meetings with the responsible public servants.
"This purple file process creates a high-risk environment for potential influence or interference with ATIA release decisions and timely disclosure under the Act," her report found.
The report says Public Works has since changed the process so there are no more face-to-face meetings between bureaucrats and minister's aides. The political staff are no longer allowed to know the category of requester, whether news media or opposition MPs.
The investigation found that only one public servant among the team handling the access-to-information request refused to accede to Togneri's instructions. The rest failed to exercise their "duty to say no," the information commissioner said.
The head of the access unit dashed down to the Public Works mailroom himself to retrieve the document after Togneri ordered its "unrelease" on the day it was to be handed over to Canada Post for delivery to The Canadian Press.
Legault said she would have sent the Togneri case herself to the attorney general's office for possible legal action, but a loophole in the Access to Information Act prevents her from referring cases involving political aides.
New Democrat MP Pat Martin said the Mountie probe is "fantastic news."
"The public's right to know what their government is doing is a fundamental cornerstone of our democracy and the Conservatives have been making a mockery of access-to-information laws.
"They deny, stall and delay requests as a matter of course — even send flunkies dumpster-diving into the royal mail to retrieve and alter responses to legitimate requests."
Liberal MP David McGuinty linked the RCMP probe to the Tory government's larger record.
"Just over five years into his mandate, Mr. Harper appears to have lost his moral compass," he said.
Legault's Togneri report is the first of at least four by her office into political interference. There are separate probes into National Defence and Foreign Affairs, as well as a larger inquiry into other problematic access-to-information requests at Public Works.
The Canadian Press reported last October that two other political staffers at Public Works were involved in gatekeeping the release of documents. Legault has said she has more than 1,000 pages of documents about other cases at the department, but would not elaborate.
In addition, she has launched a systemic investigation across all departments into various kinds of interference, including political.
Her special report next week to Parliament on the Togneri case follows often-raucous House of Commons committee meetings last year, at which the government refused to let some staff testify, citing ministerial responsibility.
"I think this raises important issues for Parliament to be aware of," she said in an interview Monday.
'This young man was thrown overboard'
McGuinty says Ambrose's timing is suspect, with the announcement coming on a break week when the Conservative government is under criticism for not releasing information on the cost of the F-35 fighter jets and its prison platform.
"They've had a long time to get to the bottom of this," McGuinty said. "The Conservative government's going to have to get a new bus because they've thrown so many bodies under the existing one. This young man was thrown overboard, under the bus, and now Rona Ambrose ... a year later is saying that the RCMP should be called in to investigate this? Come on ... of course it's a channel changer."
He says there are a number of questions he expects the RCMP to investigate, including whether Paradis was involved.
"Who else is involved and how extensive is this? Is this a single instance where one staff person was found by the information commissioner to have interfered, presumably against the Access to Information Act, without the authority to do so?" he said.
A spokesman for the RCMP's A Division in Ottawa confirmed the file was referred to them. He says the RCMP "may or may not initiate an investigation" based on an evaluation of the information provided.
Legault cannot make findings of criminal responsibility, but her report Monday recommended that Ambrose call in the Mounties.
Section 67 of the Access to Information Act forbids anyone to "direct, propose, counsel or cause any person" to conceal a record, with a maximum penalty of $10,000 and two years in jail.
No one has yet been convicted under the section, which was added in 1999.