Manitoba NDP file ombudsman complaint over Pallister's Costa Rica phone records

The NDP has filed a complaint with Manitoba’s Ombudsman in an effort to get information on Premier Brian Pallister's phone records after a series of their freedom-of-information requests were denied, stating the records do not exist.

Records for Pallister's personal phone should be released if he uses it for government business: Opposition

The Manitoba NDP wants to see what government business the premier conducts in Costa Rica and have filed an ombudsman complaint. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Manitoba's NDP thinks Premier Brian Pallister could be conducting government business in Costa Rica by personal phone or email and wants to see the records to prove it.

The Opposition has filed a complaint with the Manitoba Ombudsman's Office in an effort to get this information after a series of freedom-of-information requests seeking all international phone records, including phone bills, and email records during Pallister's trips to Costa Rica were denied on the grounds the records do not exist.

However, the NDP argues that under freedom-of-information law, any government business that is conducted, whether it is by personal email or phone, should be captured and they are ready to fight for the records to be released.

"Our caucus filed a number of freedom-of-information requests. Some that were answered demonstrated that the premier does not use his government phone to communicate with his staff or cabinet and that he doesn't use email with staff or cabinet," NDP justice critic Andrew Swan told CBC News.

"So we have been trying to figure out, when he is down in Costa Rica for weeks at a time, how exactly does he stay in contact with his team?"

Swan said staff from the ombudsman's office have been in contact with the NDP caucus. The office is expected to complete its investigation within the next month or so.

'We need to know this premier is actually engaged with staff, cabinet ministers and other levels of government,' said NDP justice critic Andrew Swan. (CBC News )
The ombudsman is an independent officer of the legislative assembly who reports to the assembly through the Office of the Speaker.

The ombudsman is a neutral officer who can investigate complaints about access to information and privacy matters.

Pallister has previously said he covers all his communication costs in Costa Rica himself, which leaves open the possibility that he uses a personal cellphone.

If the ombudsman believes the NDP's complaint is valid, it will set into motion a series of steps that could eventually lead to the premier having to turn over any records of government business on cellphones or personal email accounts conducted during his trips to Costa Rica.

Pallister prefers paper over emails

According to travel records obtained by the CBC, Pallister spent five weeks in Costa Rica from the time he became premier to the end of 2016. Earlier this year, he said he will likely spend the same amount of time in Costa Rica in 2017.

Pallister has been steadfast in his assertion that is he constantly working when he is abroad and is always accessible. He said his home in Costa Rica is fully internet-connected, but said he tends to spend his time reading and writing on paper rather than online.

Pallister told CBC in December the quiet time he has in Costa Rica gives him time to focus.

"I write my own speeches so I tend to use that time where I don't have as many interruptions to effectively manage those types of tasks," said Pallister.

However, the premier and his staff said mechanisms are in place to constantly ensure "regular communication between the Premier and senior staff, including necessary briefings on urgent or emergent topics," according to a recent government statement.​

Communication questions remain

The premier came under fire this week from the NDP after he refused to disclose how he communicates with staff when he is at his vacation home.

Swan asked Pallister a series of questions about how he communicates, including who he has called from Costa Rica, when he has called them and whether he uses email.

Pallister told a legislative committee he wasn't going to divulge that information as it is a security issue and could open his government up to leaks. He told the committee he uses a variety of ways to communicate, including "various email accounts."

A request for comment from Pallister about the ombudsman complaint made late Tuesday afternoon was not returned. Pallister was also not available following question period in the afternoon.

Swan argues it is an issue that should matter to Manitobans and the premier should be answering the questions. 

"Is he taking care of things going on when he is away for weeks at a time?" he asked.

"Given the importance of his position, the important things which take place every day, every hour in the life of a premier, we need to know this premier is actually engaged with staff, cabinet ministers and other levels of government."