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Blacking out mall collapse report counter to public interest, media argue

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TORONTO - A request by a discredited former engineer for a judicial inquiry to black out parts of a report into the deadly collapse of a northern Ontario mall to ensure he has a fair trial is speculative and runs counter to the public interest and open nature of such proceedings, a trio of media organizations argue.

In written submissions Friday, the media also maintain Commissioner Paul Belanger does not have the authority to grant the request.

In his application, Robert (Bob) Wood argued that potentially adverse findings in Belanger's report, due by the end of October, could jeopardize his right to a fair trial on charges of criminal negligence causing death and bodily harm.

Wood maintains publicity from the release of the fact-finding report could potentially taint a jury pool.

However, the media — The Canadian Press, Globe and Mail and CBC — argue he has failed to make out a solid case for "such extraordinary and unprecedented" relief.

For one thing, the media note, he has yet to decide whether to have a jury trial or be tried by judge alone. Nor has any date for a trial been set.

"Though based on speculation and contingencies, Mr. Wood's application is founded on the purported risk that the release of the commission's final report would taint the pool of potential jurors in his criminal trial," the submission states.

"This purported risk is overstated in addition to being speculative."

Belanger's commission of inquiry wrapped up public hearings into the June 2012 tragedy last October.

Among those testifying was Wood, who had attested to the structural soundness of the Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake in an inspection report he altered to downplay the building's state of disrepair. Weeks after that report, part of the rooftop parking deck caved in. Two women were killed and several other people were hurt.

Evidence was that decades of salt-water penetration due to poor waterproofing had led to severe corrosion of the steel substructure.

"One of the primary functions of public inquiries is fact-finding," the media submission notes. "They are often convened, in the wake of public shock, horror, disillusionment, or skepticism, in order to uncover 'the truth'."

Although a commission does not lay blame as such, Belanger has already informed Wood he may make adverse findings against him in his final report.

The media argue that blacking out sections that refer to him, as Wood asks, could seriously undermine the work the commission has done as well public confidence in future public inquiries, which have a mandate to help a community "grapple with a tragedy and find solutions to the problems that led to that tragedy."

The commissioner himself has also questioned whether he even has the authority to accede to Wood's redaction request given that he is required to turn his report over to the attorney general, who then makes it publicly available.

In addition to his criminal charges laid in January, Wood also faces mall-related charges from last year that he violated provincial health and safety laws.

In their submissions, commission counsel take no position on Wood's request, but note the legal presumption that the proceedings be public and all the inquiry testimony is readily available on the Internet.

The province also takes no position on whether Belanger should grant the request. It does argue Belanger has the authority to make redactions if he sees fit — but would have to turn over the full report to the AG as well.

Belanger is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the redaction request on June 20 in Ottawa.

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