Information commissioner says Ministry of Highways still breaking the law; recommends it stop that

Saskatchewan’s information and privacy commissioner says over the past year and a half the Ministry of Highways has violated Saskatchewan’s freedom of information law through a series of delays and unacceptable excuses.

Ron Kruzeniski says ministry 'must get its house in order'

Ron Kruzeniski says the Ministry of Highways' handling of GTH land deal access requests shows the organization "must get its house in order." (Stefani Langenegger/CBC)

Saskatchewan's information and privacy commissioner says over the past year-and-a-half the Ministry of Highways has violated Saskatchewan's freedom of information law through a series of delays and unacceptable excuses.

"I have no choice but to conclude that Highways is not able to manage its freedom of information process properly," said Ron Kruzeniski, in a 22 page report released July 19.

In March 2016, CBC's iTeam filed a series of freedom of information requests related to the controversial GTH land deal. While CBC has received some documents, the ministry is still dragging its feet in responding to those requests.

Kruzeniski said that is unacceptable from a ministry that manages a $1.1 billion budget.

"I will not accept that a ministry controlling that amount of the public purse is not properly equipped to handle its legal obligations under FOIP," he wrote.

This is the fourth critical report Kruzeniski has issued related to the ministry's handling of CBC's access requests. 

Initially, the ministry responded to the March requests by demanding $69,645 for the documents, which the commissioner said was excessive. He issued another report, citing the ministry's "excessive delays" and yet another rebuking the ministry for its "unnecessary, inappropriate and unauthorized" tactics.

"It is not acceptable and Highways must revamp its FOIP processes. In other words, it must get its house in order," wrote Kruzeniski this week.

Highways loses control of GTH-related documents

Late last year, the ministry provided some redacted documents to CBC in response to its March 2016 requests. In November, CBC requested the commissioner review the ministry's response to those requests to ensure it was following the law.

Kruzeniski's first step was to ask the ministry for a copy of the record it had provided to CBC. That proved to be a difficult and time-consuming task.

"On June 22, 2017 almost seven months later, after many email and telephone requests, highways provided my office with the record," the commissioner said.

So why did it take so long for the ministry to hand over the documents?

That's because the ministry's FOIP coordinator gave the entire record, not a copy but the original, to the ministry's "corporate services branch," which Kruzeniski described as "totally unacceptable."

And apparently, corporate services wouldn't or couldn't give the documents back for some reason, which is unexplained in the report.

"It is difficult to conceive why any ministry would take such an action in the middle of a series of FOIP requests related to a controversial issue that was getting considerable publicity."

The report notes the records were sent to corporate services "for a purpose not related to the freedom of information process," though it didn't say what that purpose was.

As a consequence, the ministry's FOIP coordinator has no idea which documents he gave to CBC, and which content had been redacted.

The commissioner pointed out that this will make reviewing the records rather difficult.

Ministry conducted a new search

The commissioner asked the ministry to reassemble the record to the best of its ability.

"At first, highways advised my office that it would not be dealing with these old files, which in my opinion is a blatant disregard for the law," Kruzeniski said.

Then, the organization thought better of it, and asked its IT department to redo the searches. Apparently the IT department said that would cost the ministry $26,000, so the ministry nixed that idea and decided to conduct a manual search for the documents.

In 2015, CBC Saskatchewan's iTeam started looking into a transaction between the Global Transportation Hub and a Regina developer. This video is a summary of what CBC has learned since then. 8:39

It found 1,143 pages. The commissioner says it's unlikely that these are exactly the documents originally provided to CBC months ago.

The ministry has blacked out some of the documents, and once again, has failed to follow the rules.

"Aside from the fact that my office has no way to assess what exemptions have been applied to these records, the submissions did not provide my office with enough information to determine if in fact the exemptions do apply," Kruzeniski wrote.

"My office is not prepared to play a guessing game," he wrote. "Guessing is not the role of my office."

He has recommended the ministry provide the documents to CBC within a month at no charge.

He is also recommending the ministry refund any fees CBC has paid for these access requests thus far.

When reached for comment, the ministry wrote that it "takes its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act very seriously," and is reviewing the report.

About the Author

Geoff Leo

Senior Investigative Journalist

Geoff Leo has been a reporter for CBC News in Saskatchewan since 2001. His work as an investigative journalist and documentary producer has earned numerous national and regional awards.