Top public servant offers to explain redactions to WE Charity documents

The country's top public servant is offering to testify about controversial redactions to some 5,000 pages of documents the government released on the WE Charity affair.

Finance committee continues to fight over redacted documents

Clerk of the Privy Council Ian Shugart has written to the finance committee to say he and his colleagues would be pleased to appear at the committee to explain their decisions. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The country's top public servant is offering to testify about controversial redactions to some 5,000 pages of documents the government released on the WE Charity affair.

Ian Shugart, clerk of the Privy Council, made the offer Tuesday in a letter to the House of Commons finance committee.

The committee has been stalled for several weeks over a Conservative motion denouncing the redactions as a breach of committee members' privileges as MPs.

Liberal members of the committee have been filibustering the motion, arguing that public servants should be given a chance to explain why they blacked out portions of the documents before they're officially rebuked for doing so.

In his letter, Shugart says he and his colleagues would be pleased to appear at the committee to explain their decisions.

The committee had demanded that the documents be turned over without redactions and that it be left to the parliamentary law clerk, Philippe Dufresne, to decide whether anything needed to be blacked out to maintain personal privacy or cabinet confidences.

Nevertheless, when the documents were turned over to the committee in August, large chunks had already been blacked out.

In letters to the committee at the time, Shugart and other senior public servants explained the redactions were to maintain personal privacy and cabinet confidences and to delete portions of records that had nothing to do with the WE Charity affair. Indeed, Shugart argued that the unredacted records included cabinet confidences that would normally have been blacked out.

Appearance could break impasse

However, Dufresne told the committee that it was not up to the public servants to decide what to redact.

"The House and its committees are the appropriate authority to determine whether any reasons for withholding the documents should be accepted or not," he wrote in a letter to the committee.

"One such measure is the committee's decision to have my office make the necessary redactions to protect personal information and the public servants providing assistance in this matter."

Shugart's offer to testify could potentially break the impasse that has paralyzed the finance committee for weeks now as Liberals filibuster opposition attempts to reopen investigations into the WE Charity affair.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau appear at the WE Day celebrations in Ottawa on Nov. 10, 2015. Trudeau's family ties to WE Charity plunged the student grant program into controversy the moment it was announced last June. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The Commons ethics committee has also been stalled over the WE affair, which revolves around the government's decision to pay the charity $45.3 million to administer a student services grant program, despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's close family ties to the organization.

The ethics committee had been stuck for weeks on a Conservative motion calling for the release of all speaking fees paid to Trudeau, his wife, mother and brother over the past 12 years. That motion was scaled back Monday to apply only to the prime minister and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, on the initiative of NDP member Charlie Angus.

Even so, a Bloc Quebecois MP, who was filling in at the last minute for a colleague on the committee, accidentally voted with the Liberal members to defeat the amended motion. The Bloc blamed a translation problem for the foul-up.

A Bloc spokesperson said Tuesday that the party is in discussion with the Commons clerk about the possibility of redoing the vote. If that is not possible, Julien Coulombe-Bonnafous said the party will try to introduce a similar — but not identical — motion on speaking fees next week.

"Considering that this is a mistake and there has been a technical problem, we are confident that all parties will work together," he said.

Angus is also hoping to reintroduce a similar motion.

Procedural rules generally prohibit a committee from voting a second time on the same matter so any new motion would have to be sufficiently different from the original and amended versions of the Conservative motion to pass muster.

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