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Public Works breaks Access to Information law on Earnscliffe requests  

[PoliticsWatch posted 11:00 a.m. October 6, 2004]

A Public Works office tower in Hull, Quebec, was the holding area during the summer for a request for contracts between the federal government and Earnscliffe. 

OTTAWA — Canada's Information Commissioner has ruled that the Department of Public Works and Government Services failed to comply with the Access to Information Act in the release of information regarding a  firm with close ties to Prime Minister Paul Martin. 

There  was "no lawful justification", wrote Information Commissioner John Reid,  for Public Works failing to provide what should have otherwise been a routine  release of information.

Earnscliffe is the home to many of Prime Minister Martin's key advisors. 

On the lobbying side, senior partner Michael Robinson, who oversaw the prime minister's transition to power last fall, is at Earnscliffe. And on the communications end, David Herle, the Liberal election campaign co-chair, headed up the shop. Herle recently moved out of Earnscliffe's offices to start his own firm. 

In early May, PoliticsWatch.com News submitted a request for the volume of business the federal government conducted with Earnscliffe since the Liberals came to power in 1993. The information requested was already in the public domain and, in fact, been previously released by Public Works and Government Services to CanWest News and the Canadian Press.

After  two months, Public Works failed to release the information. 

An official handling the request said there had been a delay in the request and cited workload as a factor, and that the documents were sent to the offices of Public Works Minister Scott Brison and were awaiting final approval for release. 

A staff member for Minister Brison confirmed that the minister's office is part of the approval process for Access to Information requests.  "It comes up here last and we see it," she said. 

However, the Minister's Office blamed the departmental officials for the delay in the release: "... the back log was in the department and their explanation was volume," explained an official in the Minister's office. "So they were only up here for two days.

"We do like to provide things on a timely basis."

On Aug. 16, a complaint was filed with the Office of the Information Commissioner, citing a violation of Section 7 of the Access to Information Act. 

Two days later, the same day the Information Commissioner confirmed his office was investigating the complaint and 68 days after the request was received, Public Works finally confirmed release of the request. 

The release, however, was incomplete.

First, the contracts released only went back to 1998, missing a five-year period between 1993 and 1997. 

Second,  key appendixes to the contracts were not included in the release.

Third, extensive sections of the documents were "severed" under peculiar sections of the Act regarding personal information and third party information.

One contract, valued at $246,000 with the Finance department, had three full pages "severed" under section 16 (2) of the Access to Information Act.

That section states disclosure can be withheld because it the contents may contain "information to facilitate the commission of an offence." It states the document could contain "technical information relating to weapons or potential weapons" or information on "the vulnerability of particular buildings or other structures or systems." 

The omissions are the subject of a new complaint with the Office of the Information Commissioner.

In his determination, Information Commissioner John Reid confirmed on September 14 that "PWGSC failed to be diligent in processing your access request...  In my view, there is no lawful justification for PWGSC's failure to meet the response deadline and I will so inform the department of my concerns in this regard in expectation that you will receive better service in the future." 

This year's throne speech reiterated the Martin government's call to be more open and transparent, saying the government "will provide transparent, accountable management, treating every tax dollar with respect."

But encountering problems in getting information about anything with a connection to the prime minister appears to be common. A pattern of delays and administrative errors seem to arise quite often.

The CBC News public affairs program Disclosure spent 107 days trying to obtain basic information about Martin and the company he used to own, Canada Steamship Lines. Disclosure tried to obtain records of meetings between Martin and CSL officials when he was finance minister, which were attended by then ethics commissioner Howard Wilson. Access to Information took 107 days to respond to the CBC only to inform them they would receive just 11 of 350 pages of documents on those meetings. 

In 2002, Conservative MP James Rajotte filed an Order Paper request on the exact details of Martin's family's business dealings with the government. He was later given an answer suggesting the figure was $137,000. But after finding other contracts on a government website totalling $15 million to a CSL subsidiary, Rajotte resubmitted his question in October. 

Earlier this year the government reported back that the actual figure was $161 million  - approximately 1200 times greater than the original figure. 

Martin has referred the matter to the Auditor General's office to investigate.  

Rajotte said he found his efforts to track down information about the prime minister's former company a little disconcerting and it raises questions. 

"I have suspicions, but I'm not certain whether it was intentionally a false number or not," said Rajotte. "It was at least partly at massive error."

"It obviously was very embarrassing. You know the former prime minister's image is of a very successful business person, and yet to receive $160 million from the government, I think there's a lot of business people in Canada who would want that kind of a head start."

: Related Links

> Martin says AG can review CSL errors
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