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Tories ask ombudsman to investigate FIPPA email

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Manitoba Progressive Conservatives want the province’s ombudsman to investigate why the Selinger government withheld a key email in a scandal involving a former cabinet minister.

The PCs are upset that the government failed initially to turn over the email – sought under freedom of information legislation -- that would have shed light in 2012 on former immigration and multiculturalism minister Christine Melnick’s role in inviting immigrant groups to a contentious debate at the legislative building.

The province failed to release the email when the Tories requested copies of electronic correspondence relating to the invitation in the spring of 2012. When the PCs filed an almost identical request in January of this year, the incriminating email was handed over. By then, Melnick had already admitted that she had directed an assistant deputy minister, Ben Rempel, to issue an invitation to the event. Nearly two years earlier, in the spring of 2012, she stated that Rempel had acted on his own initiative in inviting immigrant organizations to the debate over proposed changes to immigrant settlement services..

When the omitted letter finally came to light, Progressive Conservative house leader Kelvin Goertzen said it raised concerns about the integrity of the access-to-information process in Manitoba.

On Tuesday, he wrote a letter to acting Manitoba Ombudsman Mel Holley asking that his office investigate the matter.

Goertzen said the government appears to have discovered shortly after its first response to the Tories’ freedom of information request that it had omitted the key email, yet it didn’t hand it over until the PCs filed a second request much later.

"I would ask that you investigate how the email in question was omitted in the first request, and why the omission was not reported when it was discovered," Goertzen said in his letter to Holley.

The omitted email showed that Melnick was intimately involved in inviting immigrant groups to the legislature debate.

When the omission became known earlier this month, the government explained that the key email was inadvertently missed in its first response to the Tories’ freedom of information request.

"There was no political direction to hold the email -- it was simply missed at the department level," said Jeff Parr, deputy minister of the now Labour and Immigration Department.

Parr said the department only discovered the missed email after the provincial Ombudsman became involved. (The ombudsman had been asked by a member of the public to investigate whether Rempel had engaged in partisan political action by emailing immigrant groups inviting them to the contentious debate. The ombudsman later ruled Rempel's actions raised concerns but broke no rules.)

The incriminating email was discovered in June 2012 after the ombudsman asked the government to take another look in its files to see if any other evidence had been missed, Parr said. The document was discovered in the course of that search, he said.

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