Group sues auditor general to release G8 report

An online activist group is filing a lawsuit in federal court to try to force the auditor general to release her report into the government's G8 spending before the election.
Kathleen Trotter, centre, and the online activist group Avaaz.org is suing Auditor General Sheila Fraser to release her final report into G8 spending. Emma Ruby-Sachs, right, the group's campaign director, and legal counsel Frank Addario joined Trotter at a Toronto press conference Tuesday. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

An online activist group is filing a lawsuit in federal court to try to force the auditor general to release her report into the government's G8 spending before the election, it announced Tuesday.

Avaaz, an organization known for its petitions on democracy and rights issues, is arguing Auditor General Sheila Fraser should release her report into last year's G8 summit before Canadians go to the polls in less than a week.

A leaked early draft of the report, obtained by the Canadian Press, said the Conservative government allegedly "misinformed" Parliament to win approval for a $50-million G8 fund that spread taxpayers' money on dubious projects in a Conservative riding.

But the most damning lines from that report didn't appear in a later draft, according to Conservative candidate John Baird, who was the government house leader in the last parliamentary session.

Avaaz says they've collected more than 80,000 signatures urging Fraser to release the report. The lawsuit argues Canadians need to see the report so they can have a meaningful discussion about an important issue, and that this is required under the Charter sections on voting and freedom of expression.

"The Avaaz lawsuit argues that a leaked G8 report must be produced to have a meaningful discussion about a matter of public importance," Avaaz says in a news release.

"The report alleges that the Harper government illegally handed $50 million in taxpayers' money to a Conservative riding and covered it up as G8 summit spending."

It will take anywhere from one to seven days for the court to schedule a hearing, but a spokeswoman for the group says it is ready to argue the case as soon as Wednesday.

"It's simply a question of truth," said Emma Ruby-Sachs. "Canadians want to know the answer to this question, they need to know the answer before they cast a vote."

Despite Fraser's argument that she is an officer of Parliament and can only report to a sitting House of Commons under the law governing her office, Ruby-Sachs says that rule isn't explicitly outlined.

"Parliament represents the people; the people have the right to know," she said.

Leaks unprecedented

Parliamentary expert Ned Franks said Fraser's in a difficult situation with not only one unprecedented leak, but two.

"She's bound by the rules and traditions of the office and the rules and traditions of Parliament, which is that Parliament is the only appropriate recipient for a completed report," he said.

Franks says the law governing Fraser's office says she "shall" table the report in Parliament, but it doesn't say she can't release the report somewhere else. In other words, she's not explicitly banned from releasing the report outside of the House of Commons.

"The court's issue here, what they're going to have to decide on, is whether the shall means only, or perhaps in addition to others?" Franks said.

"What I hope this organization does is keep pursuing the issue after the election so that it's clarified."

Ruby-Sachs compares Avaaz's request to the way the office releases reports early to the media on the day they're tabled in the House. She argues Fraser chooses to release reports to reporters so the public get better coverage.

But journalists get the report only a few hours before the public, and are forced to turn in their blackberries and sit in a room with no internet access until the report is officially tabled in the House.

A spokesman for the auditor general's office said they're standing by the statement released after the leak.

"The Office of the Auditor General of Canada remains the custodian of its reports until they are presented to the Speaker of the House of Commons for tabling," Fraser said when the draft version was leaked.

She urged Canadians to wait for the complete version of the report, and said her office has launched an investigation of the leaks.

Leaders want report released

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said earlier this month his party wants to see the real report released.

"We have been very clear about this, but the auditor general's office is independent. We can't tell her what to do," he told reporters after the leaders' French-language debates in Ottawa.

All the party leaders have agreed they want to see the report released.

This isn't the first time Avaaz has made headlines in Canada. Last fall, the group started an error-filled petition against right-wing Sun News Network's application to the CRTC for a broadcast license.

The petition referred to the network by its "Fox News North" nickname, rather than its actual name, and said it was part of what Avaaz said was Harper's plan to "push American-style hate media" onto the airwaves. The network is actually owned by Québecor, although several former Harper staffers work for it.