spending hidden from public
Expense reports, restaurant bills no longer available through Access
Reprinted with permission from the Ottawa
Tuesday, January 22, 2002
The federal government has dropped a veil over the spending habits of
cabinet ministers and their aides by refusing to release expense
reports requested through the Access to Information Act.
The Ottawa Citizen
Restaurant bills or government credit card receipts run up by a
cabinet minister were once matters of public record, available to the
public for a $5 fee.
But now these documents can no longer be obtained through the
access process and the discretionary spending of government money by
ministers and their staff is effectively shielded from public view.
The federal government quietly changed the way it handles such
requests last year when Access to Information co-ordinators in most of
the major departments agreed that documents related to ministers and
their "exempt staff" would not be disclosed.
The government was acting on a report prepared in March by the
Treasury Board Secretariat. It says political staff hired by a
minister's office may not be subject to the law because they are
neither government employees nor under contract to government. That
means no information about exempt staff can be disclosed unless he or
she gives consent.
The report was written to help the Access co-ordinators interpret
recent legal precedents, including a 1997 Supreme Court ruling that
broadened the scope of privacy legislation.
In practice, this new interpretation of the access law will curb
the public's ability to see how politicians and their staff spend
money on travel or hospitality. It could also keep the media from
reporting on potentially embarrassing misuses of government funds.
Had the interpretation been in place in 1996, for instance, the
public might never have learned that junior cabinet minister Ethel
Blondin-Andrew had used a government credit card to buy a fur coat and
pay for trips to New York, Hawaii and Mexico. (Ms. Blondin-Andrew
repaid the government for the expenses, but was forced to apologize in
the House of Commons for misuse of the card.)
The new interpretation of the act was used most recently when the
Citizen filed a routine request for hospitality expenses billed by
Cyrus Reporter, an aide to former health minister Allan Rock.
Health Canada cited the Privacy Act in rejecting the request, even
though numerous other requests of a similar type have been honoured in
Hank Schreil, Health Canada's Access to Information director, says
he would have turned over expense reports before, but says he is now
bound by the latest interpretation of the act.
"That's the way the interpretation of the law is, and this is
the response my department has given on three recent occasions,"
Mr. Schreil said.
The departmental access co-ordinators first adopted the practice
last year, after receiving a wide-ranging series of requests for
travel and hospitality expenses charged by cabinet ministers and their
staff in all the major departments.
The request prompted considerable networking between the
departmental access directors. They eventually released the
information, but with the pertinent names of the cabinet ministers and
exempt staff blocked out.
But obscuring the name wouldn't work for requests involving a
specific exempt employee, such as Mr. Reporter, Mr. Schreil said.
"When there's a request about an individual person, obviously
that doesn't make any sense. You would know who it would be."
Instead, the information is simply not disclosed.
This latest restriction on the access law comes amid further
escalation of the hostilities between the federal government and
Information Commissioner John Reid over the scope of the Access act.
The Prime Minister's Office is suing Mr. Reid in Federal Court over
his attempts to gain access to Mr. ChrČtien's daily agenda books. Mr.
Reid wants to see the agendas to decide whether they can be released
under the Access act. But the PMO, and several other minister's
offices, have responded with a volley of litigation to challenge Mr.
Reid's right to subpoena witnesses and documents in his investigation.
The central issue in the dispute is the distinction between
departmental records and ministerial records. Under the Act, documents
held by a government department can be released, but those which are
"under the control" of a minister's office are exempt. The
case is headed to the Supreme Court.
© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen