Nova Scotia ombudsman notches victory in legal fight with RCMP
Mounties want Cumberland Regional Development Authority information help from ombudsman's office
Nova Scotia's Office of the Ombudsman has notched an initial legal victory in its bid to withhold confidential information from police related to its probe of financial impropriety at a now-defunct regional economic development agency.
An Amherst provincial court judge has ruled a production order — one that forces the office to turn over to RCMP fraud investigators all the information it has on the Cumberland Regional Development Authority — must either be revoked or varied.
"I accept that many individuals who contact the Ombudsman and agree to provide information, do so with the expectation and understanding that their information and the fact that they provided information will be kept private," Judge Elizabeth Buckle said in a written decision.
"This is important to the ability of the Office of the Ombudsman to do its job."
RCMP want the ombudsman to turn over all documents related to its final report on the development authority. The Mounties are particularly interested in tapes and notes of interviews ombudsman investigators did with witnesses.
The ruling is an interim one. Buckle said she needs further information from both sides before deciding whether the production order can be varied, rather than revoked.
Ombudsman 'firm' in its position
The ombudsman began looking into the economic development authority four years ago, and its subsequent report prompted a forensic audit that found more than $790,000 worth of false and questionable invoices. A police investigation was launched last year.
Police have now interviewed more than 60 witnesses and seized documents and other information from locations such as an accountant's office and a CIBC lockbox.
RCMP also served a production order on the ombudsman's office seeking all information related to its final report. But the ombudsman has opposed the order, arguing specific provincial legislation protects the confidentiality of those who come forward to the office.
Acting ombudsman Christine Delisle-Brennan said Wednesday her office is "fairly firm" in its position that it does not want to "open the highway" for confidential information to be disclosed to police without parameters.
The office investigates complaints against provincial and municipal government departments, agencies, boards and commissions. Delisle-Brennan said keeping witness information confidential is important.
"We tend to experience or enjoy, if you will, that level of comfort for folks to provide full disclosure to us on matters to help us get to the issue," she said in an interview.
She notes ombudsman reports are not admissible in court.
RCMP seek interviews
The Cumberland Regional Development Authority was axed by the province in 2013. When it was still up and running, it received about $700,000 a year in public money for core funding.
It was also handed hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional funds for specific projects — such as the redevelopment of the Thinkers' Lodge National Historic Site in Pugwash.
RCMP have said in court documents that its investigation centres on whether former authority executive director Rhonda Kelly committed fraud.
An RCMP spokesman said Wednesday the force will not comment on Buckle's decision.
During October's hearing on the issue, an RCMP officer testified he did not believe there were documents held by the ombudsman that were not to be found elsewhere.
But Const. Wayne Ross said he wants the interviews to learn whether any information provided by ombudsman investigators to witnesses may have influenced subsequent statements to police.
He also said there could be "exculpatory" information in those interviews that could help determine whether charges are laid in the case.