Politics

Information watchdog wants tougher bite

Canada's information commissioner says she wants the ability to refer cases of wrongdoing, including those involving political staff, directly to the RCMP.
Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault wants more power to enforce the Access to Information Act. (The Canadian Press)
Canada's federal information commissioner says she should have the ability to refer cases of wrongdoing involving a broader range of people, including political staff, directly to the RCMP.

In an interview with CBC news after she testified before a Parliamentary committee on a different matter, Suzanne Legault told CBC News she wants the "ability to refer any instances, dealing with anyone to the appropriate law enforcement agency, as opposed to the attorney general."

That recommendation is contained in her "special" report to Parliament entitled "Interference with Access to Information Part One." She's planning subsequent reports on four separate investigations into political interference in departments such as National Defence.

The case that sparked the first report involved a request to the department of Public Works and Government Services that The Canadian Press made in 2009. The reporter wanted to know how the department was handling its real estate portfolio, so he filed a request under the Access to Information Act.

Department officials were set to release the document, but Sebastian Togneri, the former aide to the then-public works minister Christian Paradis, demanded that the document be "unreleased."

The reporter eventually obtained the heavily-censored report, and later complained to Legault's office. She found that there was evidence of political interference and recommended that the public works minister refer the case to the RCMP.

Although the current public works minister, Rona Ambrose, complied with that recommendation last week, she didn't have to. And that's what concerns Legault, who says that the law forces her to go through a third party, such as a cabinet minister whose department is being investigated or the justice minister. There's no guarantee that they would pass the case along, which is why she wants the power to go directly to the RCMP.

"It's not just giving me an assurance," Legault told CBC News. "It gives the public the assurance that (a case) will be properly investigated, and that's what I'm concerned about."

Legault said she's also concerned about individuals, such as political staff and consultants, who are excluded under the Access to Information Act.

"We know that there are a lot of those people who are employed on contract to process access-to-information requests. So to me that's a gap that needs to be addressed."

Addressing these concerns would mean amending the act, something that politicians of all stripes have been reluctant to do.

David McKie can be reached atdavid_mckie@cbc.ca