Ministers' spending hidden from public

Expense reports, restaurant bills no longer available through Access act

Reprinted with permission from the Ottawa Citizen

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Tuesday, January 22, 2002

Glen McGregor
The Ottawa Citizen

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.

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 past.

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

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