Brian Pallister's wife had confidential government documents sent to her personal email
Records show Esther Pallister often received secure documents for the Manitoba premier
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister's wife was sent sensitive documents — including legal opinions and budget papers — on multiple occasions, according to freedom-of-information records obtained by CBC News.
The information comes from email records obtained by the Opposition New Democrats last month under the province's freedom-of-information law, which show senior staff frequently used Esther Pallister as a conduit to the premier, and on one occasion sent her budget material nine days ahead of its release.
News of the arrangement between Esther and Brian Pallister shocked Duff Conacher, the co-founder of Democracy Watch, a non-profit group that advocates for government accountability.
He said it is especially egregious that budget documents, which if leaked ahead of their release can give people a financial edge, were sent to someone who isn't an elected official or a staff member.
"A premier can't have it both ways, and say, 'Cabinet confidentiality is very important except when it comes to my spouse.' That is hypocritical and and self-contradictory."
The email in question was sent on April 2 from David McLaughlin, a senior adviser within the province's finance department, to Esther Pallister, with the subject "Budget Speech Draft." The budget was officially released on April 11.
The 18-page speech and two paragraphs in the email are redacted in the disclosure by freedom-of-information co-ordinators, under the provision that those sections are deemed advice developed by or for the public body or a minister.
Policy gap has been 'rectified': premier's office
The premier's office declined a request for an interview with Brian Pallister on the subject.
The premier's director of communications, Chisholm Pothier, pointed to the government's recently announced policy directive to ban the use of personal email for government business, writing the situation has been "rectified."
"Going forward he will use government devices and emails, but as there wasn't a guideline it wasn't a relevant question at the time. The policy introduced is not only new to us, but also the Manitoba government," Pothier said.
He added that the new directive is only an interim policy and the province's clerk of the executive council is reviewing further security protocols, including those related to document security.
There was no explanation given as to why the emails were going through Esther Pallister or what sort of security measures were in place at the time to ensure the document was secure.
CBC News reached out to the premier's office again on Wednesday after the story had been published and asked again for an interview.
Pothier said the premier would not be doing any media on the subject.
"I expect he'll do a media [availability] at some point between now and the next election and he will be asked whatever the media wants him to ask," Pothier wrote in an email.
"But we're not creating a media [availability] on this as we've answered it. There was no policy, so no restrictions on methods of government communication. There were no leaks of government information during that time. (As an aside, I've worked on many draft budget speeches. They are innocuous documents. Which is irrelevant, as there was no leak.)
The lack of policy was identified.
I am glad the NDP are outraged at their glaring lack of policy that we fixed.
The Premier will follow the new policy."
'It boggles the mind'
Andrew Swan, the NDP's justice critic and former attorney general, said he can't fathom having a staff member send a confidential legal opinion to his wife.
In that case, Jonathan Scarth, the premier's principal secretary, forwarded a 10-page legal opinion to Esther Pallister's email.
"These are important documents being sent to [an MTS] account. A budget document is the most important document in the year," he said.
"That information can potentially give someone an advantage over other business. It boggles the mind the premier thinks that is the way to send confidential and important information."
It is unclear what the legal opinion was referencing because it was redacted by freedom-of-information co-ordinators under the provision it is protected information subject to solicitor-client privilege.
In other emails, Esther wrote to Scarth, telling him that the premier would like to meet with him. On another occasion, Esther forwarded three announcement proposals and asked him to forward them on to other staff. The announcements are redacted in the disclosure.
"Please find attached three announcement proposals from Brian," Esther Pallister wrote on Aug. 31, 2016, a period where records show the pair were in Costa Rica.
The records released to the NDP on July 14 also include an email sent from the premier's special assistant, Colin Weeres, arranging a phone call between the premier, Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen and senior staff.
Esther replies to the email, sent Dec. 19, 2016, when Pallister was in Costa Rica, asking them to call the premier from her cellphone. At that time, the provinces were in the midst of negotiations with the federal government over the signing of a new health accord.
'Cabinet confidence matters': premier
The release of the records follows months of questions by the opposition concerning how Pallister communicates.
Questions first arose last December, when it was discovered that the premier had never used his government-issued email. He said he was an "old-fashioned" guy who preferred phone calls to email.
"I prefer direct contact by phone or face-to-face ahead of email because emails can sometimes be misunderstood," he told CBC News last year.
Questions concerning how and when he communicates, especially during visits to his vacation home in Costa Rica, continued to surround the premier.
However, citing security concerns, Pallister refused to disclose his communication system. He said going into more detail would be a threat to cabinet confidentiality.
"I'm trying to protect the confidentiality and the information flow that I'm responsible for as premier at all times, and I'll continue to do that because cabinet confidence matters," Pallister said in response to questions from Swan in May during an estimates hearing.
"What [Swan] is interpreting as reluctance is really a very, very sincere commitment to make sure that I don't say or do anything that would give less security to the information flows on a daily basis."
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