Paradis aide resigns over info meddling

An aide to Conservative cabinet minister Christian Paradis has resigned over his meddling in at least four different access to information requests.
An aide to a Conservative cabinet minister Christian Paradis, above, meddled with at least four sensitive access-to-information requests, documents show. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

An aide to Conservative cabinet minister Christian Paradis has resigned over his meddling in at least four different access-to-information requests.

Sebastien Togneri handed in his resignation Thursday evening after a report by The Canadian Press outlining a series of incidents while the minister headed the Public Works portfolio.

Paradis's spokeswoman Mary-Ann Dewey-Plante said in an emailed statement that Togneri offered the minister his resignation and it was accepted.

"Minister Paradis will be asking (current Public Works Minister Rona) Ambrose to refer this issue to the information commissioner," the statement read.

Documents recently provided to a House of Commons committee, and obtained by CP, show Togneri directed bureaucrats to remove material that was destined for release.

Togneri was adviser to then-public works minister Christian Paradis and was in his employ at Natural Resources.

The committee began studying political interference into access-to-information requests when it came to light that Togneri had blocked the release of a document to the national news agency in July 2009.

In that case, a bureaucrat was ordered to retrieve the package from the Public Works mailroom to remove files concerning the government's massive real estate portfolio.

Togneri testified to the committee in May that it was the only time he had intervened in an access request. He also called his actions "stupid" and a "mistake."

A senior bureaucrat in the department later called it "an extraordinary circumstance."

But emails within the department suggest otherwise.

Requests vetted

Paradis's office had a system to vet access-to-information requests from the media and political parties, documents show. Bureaucrats bundled the "interesting" documents together and put them in a purple folder, waiting for Togneri to give the green light.

Although reviewing what's about to be made public is accepted practice in ministerial offices, partly to prepare the minister for questions about controversial revelations, altering or blocking the release of documents is forbidden by law.

One request for information about government preparations for U.S. President Barack Obama's first official visit to Canada also came under Togneri's scrutiny. He suggested bureaucrats had released too much information, and wanted some held back.   

"I encourage the ATIP [Access to Information and Privacy] department to remove everything but the work order. It is part of daily operations to prepare for diplomatic visits," Togneri wrote in July 2009.

"Hopefully, the ATIP that will be sent back up will have that change."

In another instance, involving the backgrounds of members of a government panel examining asbestos, Togneri directed bureaucrats to "please exclude the following that is highlighted."

Togneri also directed changes to be made to access-to-information documents being released involving question-period notes prepared for Paradis.

"It is signed to go out on the condition that the changes I requested be made," Togneri wrote. 

Information commissioner investigates

Togneri's interference with the Canadian Press request in July 2009 is the subject of an investigation by the information commissioner, who has yet to report.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's chief of staff, Guy Giorno, issued a memo on access-to-information matters in February, reminding all political staff in ministers' offices of the laws they must abide by.

"No political staff member has received a delegation of authority under the act and therefore no political staff member has authority to make access-to-information decisions," Giorno wrote.   

Paradis's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Following the first revelations about Togneri's interference in the CP release, Paradis stripped him of any involvement in access-to-information requests. And after Togneri's initial appearances before the Commons committee, the Conservative government declared it would no longer allow political staffers to testify or release their internal documents.

Liberal MP Wayne Easter, who sits on the Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics committee, said he senses the "taint of a coverup."

"As we started to get into the issue and some evidence started to come out that was critical and showed the prevention of access, then the government just overnight in a flash took the opposite direction and said no, they weren't going to allow the witnesses or the emails to come forward," said Easter.