Some now-secret Muskrat Falls contractor pay details were released by Nalcor Energy last year

Nalcor released information on 233 contract positions at Muskrat Falls last year, despite insisting they cannot release the same information on other contractors.

Crown corporation says recent requests were too specific, and would cause unfair financial harm

Nalcor Energy says rates paid to contractors on the Lower Churchill project can't be released, because they are commercially sensitive. The Crown corporation did release some of that same information last year. (CBC)

While Nalcor Energy now insists it is barred by law from revealing how much Muskrat Falls contractors are paid, the energy corporation released some of the same information for 233 contract positions last year.

In a statement to CBC News, Nalcor says recent requests for similar information were denied because they were too specific and would have meant unfair financial harm to the people hired to do those jobs.

Nalcor says it is now working to release information similar to what was provided in the past, while still complying with the current legislation.

Media reports over the past month have raised questions about the number of so-called embedded contractors working on Muskrat Falls, and the level of secrecy surrounding how much they get paid.

The issue became a political hot potato in the legislature this week, with Premier Dwight Ball suggesting that legislative changes are an option to increase accountability at Nalcor.

Recent requests rejected

Nalcor rejected recent access to information requests by CBC News and the Telegram for financial details related to contractors on the Lower Churchill.

The Telegram reported last month that "Nalcor refused to disclose the hourly billing rates of contractors, citing a special 'commercially sensitive information' provision in the Energy Corporation Act."

Nalcor issued a similar reply to CBC News: "Daily/hourly rates and other financial information from which daily/hourly rates could be determined have been withheld in accordance with … the Energy Corporation Act."

Those responses appear to contrast with Nalcor's handling of an access to information request in July 2016.

Someone asked for "the charge rate invoiced to Nalcor for various contractors through recruiting agencies provided to Nalcor working on the Muskrat Falls project."

Nalcor replied: "Please be advised that your request has been granted in full."

The energy corporation provided a spreadsheet of 233 contract positions.

The construction site of the hydroelectric facility at Muskrat Falls, Newfoundland and Labrador, is seen on July 14, 2015. Premier Dwight Ball and the board of Nalcor Energy are in discussions over transparency issues, related to the public disclosure of payments made to contractors working on the megaproject. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Nalcor's July 2016 response broke down positions by billing rate per day, position title and name of the company.

Some of the information was in aggregate when multiple positions were contracted from the same company. Other rates related to specific individuals.

For example, a single position titled "HR/LR" was contracted through NSB Energy for $1,128 per day.

Another company, Noramtec Consultants Inc., provided a contracts administrator for $1,335 daily.

Yet another, Upstream Solutions Inc., received $1,440 per day for a quality advisor/lead/coordinator.

All told, 13 separate firms were listed in the 2016 Nalcor access to information response. In total, they were paid $199,065 per day to fill 233 contract positions on Muskrat Falls.

Nalcor says 'harm' would have resulted

Nalcor disagrees there is a double standard in how those requests were handled.

In a nutshell, the corporation contends that there was no harm in releasing the information last year.

But this year, because the identities of the persons occupying those positions had already been made public through other access requests, things are different.

Effectively, the latest round of requests were too specific, which means commercially sensitive information would be made public, which Nalcor views as harmful.

In a statement, Nalcor said "releasing the information for these people, who are individual third parties, could negatively impact their negotiating position as they negotiate their rates in the marketplace. The previous request did not impact individuals in this way."

Premier, Nalcor board corresponding

Premier Dwight Ball and the Nalcor board have been corresponding on the transparency issue related to contractor compensation since the initial media reports last month.

In an Oct. 2 letter to the premier, Nalcor chair Brendan Paddick stressed that the board of directors is following legal advice.

"The board has been provided with an opinion of Nalcor's vice-president, general counsel and corporate secretary stating that the corporation is required to withhold the billing rates of the contractors," Paddick wrote.

He indicated that it falls under the definition of commercially sensitive information under the act governing Nalcor.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball answered questions from reporters outside the House of Assembly in St. John's Monday. The premier stressed that he is open to changing the law governing Nalcor Energy, if it's necessary to increase transparency at the Crown corporation. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

"We understand the province's desire to be as open and transparent as possible with respect to the [Lower Churchill project] and the work that is being carried out in association with that project," Paddick noted.

"However, Nalcor operates in a commercial environment and it is important that it be able to treat commercially sensitive information that it possesses in an appropriate manner to ensure that the relationships and agreements in which it becomes involved can be respected."

Ball replied on Oct. 13.

"I must disagree with you on the matter of public disclosure of billing rates for embedded contractors," the premier wrote.

"While I concede there may be some instances where the requested information is commercially sensitive, I question the full denial in these circumstances, especially in the context of individuals who incorporate themselves."

CBC News reported earlier this month that several of the top managers and directors near the top of the Lower Churchill organization chart are employed through personal or family companies housed at what appear to be their residential addresses.

Those arrangements put public disclosure of their pay off-limits.