Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ombudsman told to end vet's probe

Ex-soldier's confidential info spread around department

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OTTAWA -- An investigation by Canada's veterans ombudsman into a controversial breach of privacy was quietly shut down last year on the instructions of Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney, newly released documents reveal.

Blaney asked the ombudsman to discontinue a probe that his predecessor had ordered in January 2011, after the confidential medical information of veterans advocate Sean Bruyea was spread around the department in an alleged smear campaign.

Information from a psychiatrist's letter was stitched into a ministerial briefing note at the same time Bruyea, an outspoken critic, was publicly criticizing a controversial overhaul of veterans benefits in 2006.

Former veterans minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn asked the ombudsman to investigate Bruyea's privacy breach, even though the office of the privacy commissioner was already looking in to what happened.

The hope was the ombudsman would get to the bottom of why the personal information of Bruyea and others was rifled through by bureaucrats -- motives that were not the focus of the overarching privacy audit by commissioner Jennifer Stoddart.

But in July 2011, just two months after Blackburn went down to electoral defeat, Blaney -- Blackburn's replacement at the cabinet table -- wrote to ombudsman Guy Parent to ask that the probe be halted.

"I have since been able to carefully review this case with my officials," Blaney wrote in the letter, obtained by The Canadian Press.

"We have determined that the best course of action is a review by the office of the privacy commissioner. In this way, the commissioner can complete an assessment of the department's actions and conclude on its compliance with the requirements of the Privacy Act."

Lisa Monette, a spokeswoman for the ombudsman, said Parent agreed the privacy commissioner was best positioned to review the matter, but that the ombudsman "stood willing to assist as needed."

A spokesman for Blaney, Niklaus Schwenker, said the minister acted swiftly to refer the matter to Stoddart, and reiterated that the Harper government has "brought forward sweeping privacy improvements within the department."

The federal government settled a lawsuit with Bruyea out of court and has implemented a series of measures meant to tighten up the handling of personal information within the department.

Veterans Affairs is in the unusual position of holding a vast amount of personal data -- including medical files -- on ex-soldiers, some of whom turn into outspoken critics.

A number of advocates other than Bruyea have claimed their files were used to discredit them within the department and political circles.

One of the country's most decorated veterans of the Bosnia war, retired sergeant Tom Hoppe, is one of those who says officials were snooping in his records in 2006.

Hoppe, who plans to protest by not wearing his medals on Remembrance Day, said no one has atoned for the violations of personal privacy.

In an audit released a few weeks ago, Stoddart gave the Veterans Department a thumbs-up, suggesting it had cleaned up its act.

Blaney's letter startled New Democrat veterans affairs critic Peter Stoffer, who said it calls into question the independence of the ombudsman.

"When he gets a request to look into something, that office should have the independence and the staff to do so," Stoffer said. Precisely why the privacy breaches occurred remains an unresolved issue, he added.

"They had a change of heart -- why? There's no question the government suddenly changed its mind and didn't want the ombudsman to look into it. Obviously they're trying to hide something."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2012 A19

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