Monday, March 14, 2011

RCMP probe into Conservative staffer's access to information interference

More of the anti-democratic narrative developing today: "Mounties to investigate Conservative staffer over political interference." The Harper government, with no choice, is acting on the Information Commissioner's advice to call in the RCMP to investigate its own political staffer's activities. The fact that this stage has been reached for this government on the access to information file is significant:
Legault cannot make findings of criminal responsibility, but her report Monday recommended that Ambrose call in the Mounties, in addition to making administrative changes.

Section 67 of the Access to Information Act forbids anyone to "direct, propose, counsel or cause any person'' to conceal a record, with a maximum penalty of $10,000 and two years in jail. No one has yet been convicted under the section, which was added in 1999.

Legault's intensive probe of the Togneri case uncovered a so-called "purple file" process at Public Works, by which the minister's political staff reviewed potentially damaging access releases at meetings with the responsible public servants.

"This purple file process creates a high-risk environment for potential influence or interference with ATIA release decisions and timely disclosure under the Act," her report found.
The purple file, possibly a term we'll come to know quite well in the future. While Togneri is singled out here, there are other political staffers who have been reported to be involved in interference with ATI as well. Further, some have pointed the finger higher up the line for ultimate responsibility for this government's approach to access to information:
"Since we formed government, the PMO has been pressuring us to take a hard line on ATIP requests," the staffer, who did not want to be identified, told The Hill Times.
...the staffer who deals with ATI files told The Hill Times the Paradis incident was not an isolated one, but a standard operating procedure.

"Sebastian...has not, from my experience, done anything that is significantly different than what ministers' offices are expected to do by the PMO," said the staffer.

The source said the Prime Minister's Office has pressured ministerial staffers to head off the release of explosive information.

"The PMO does get mad at ministers' offices when there's an ATIP that goes out that has more information than they believe it ought to have had," the staffer said. "They'll yell at ministers' offices.

The PMO's issues management's wing, the staffer said, is at the centre of the governing Conservatives' access restriction system. It is said to dispense tactical advice to ministers' offices that will help persuade departments to release less information.
Whether an RCMP investigation would go there, who knows.

Bottom line, the optics of yet another legal transgression for the government are not going to be helpful going into an election campaign, no matter the spin they throw out for public consumption.