Nova Scotia

Premier's office shielded witness from access investigation

The deputy minister in Premier Stephen McNeil's office personally intervened to block Nova Scotia's Information and Privacy Commissioner from interviewing a cabinet minister's executive assistant.

'The department conducted no search for records either inside or outside the government system'

Catherine Tully is the province's Information and Privacy Commissioner. (CBC)

The most senior bureaucrat in Stephen McNeil's office blocked the province's Information and Privacy Commissioner from speaking to a cabinet minister's executive assistant during an investigation into Leo Glavine's use of a personal email account to conduct government business.

Premier Stephen McNeil sees nothing wrong with that and can't understand why Catherine Tully would even want to interview the political staffer.

"The information officer was looking at Minister Glavine using his Gmail account, which he acknowledged, and he fixed the practice," McNeil told reporters Thursday on his way into Province House.

"What more was she looking for?" he said.  "What does she want? "You don't call witnesses when someone actually says, 'You know what, you're right, I was wrong.'"

That investigation was launched as part of an appeal of a request for documents by a Global News reporter that was denied by the Health Department.

In July 2017, Marieke Walsh requested "all emails sent or received by then Health Minister Leo Glavine on his personal email account that are related to his mandate as a member of the executive council and/or as health minister."

Tully says department didn't try

According to Catherine Tully, the Information and Privacy Commissioner, the department didn't even try to comply with the request.

"The department conducted no search for records either inside or outside the government system," she concluded in her 18-page review report.

Premier Stephen McNeil meets with the media on Thursday at Province House. (Steve Berry/CBC )

Under Nova Scotia's Access to Information Act, public bodies must assist people who file requests for documents.

"The Department failed to make any effort, let alone every reasonable effort, to search for responsive records," wrote Tully.

She was also critical of the department's initial response to the reporter's request.

"The Department's response letter was not open, accurate or complete."

Wanted to talk to Peter Bragg

During the course of her investigation Tully wanted to talk to Peter Bragg, Glavine's executive assistant, since Glavine and Bragg frequently exchanged emails using both the minister's government account and the one he set up in Gmail.

"The Department was asked by the OIPC to produce the former executive assistant as a witness, the Deputy Minister to the Premier responded on August 9, 2018 indicating that the executive assistant would not be made available for an interview by the office," Tully noted in her report.

"It is one of the many weaknesses of Nova Scotia's outdated right to information law that this office does not have the power to summon witness."

It's a weakness the premier highlighted as part of his defence of his own office.

"She doesn't have the authority," said McNeil. " The fact of the matter is that's the reality. She does not have that authority." 

Leo Glavine is shown at Province House on Thursday. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Despite Tully's criticism and her six recommendations, McNeil painted this as a win for the commissioner.

"The question should be if you're not satisfied when you achieve the outcome you wanted, what more do you want?"

Series of recommendations

In this case, Tully has recommended six things be done, including having Glavine review his personal email accounts for government-related business and have a copy of those emails forwarded to the province's Information Access and Privacy Services for further review, that the minister "confirm in writing" the scope of his email search and that he attach a message on his personal email account stating department business should go to his government email address.

Tully also wants the province to "develop and implement a policy prohibiting the use of personal email accounts to conduct government business."

Glavine told reporters Thursday he no longer uses a personal email account for any government business and claims he hasn't since the issue was first brought to his attention.

The minister responsible for seniors, Glavine also denies the use of Gmail, rather than his government email account, was an attempt to hide something.

"Oh, absolutely not," he said. "No, it was just one of those, you know, issues that took place."

NDP leader Gary Burrill said the premier's handling of the issue reflected badly on his government's image.

"The whole business, taken in general, just doesn't provide any kind of a sense of a government that really values being forthright, and places a high importance on its transparency and openness before the public," he said. "It provides a sense rather of a woodpile full of weasels."

Read more articles at CBC Nova Scotia

About the Author

Jean Laroche

Reporter

Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter for 32 years. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.