The provincial Tories are crying foul over the government’s handling of a freedom of information request concerning a scandal involving a former cabinet minister.
The Conservatives filed an access to information request under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) in May 2012 to find out whether former immigration and multiculturalism minister Christine Melnick had directed government bureaucrats to invite members of the city’s immigrant community to a legislative debate.
That request failed to turn up evidence that Melnick directed an assistant deputy minister in her department to issue the invitation, something she denied at the time.
However, when the Tories filed virtually the same FIPPA request this past January, they received a copy of an e-mail that would have forced Melnick and the NDP to admit the minister’s involvement 17 months before it was revealed in a report by the provincial Ombudsman.
FIPPA becoming 'government protection program': Tories
Progressive Conservative House Leader Kelvin Goertzen said the fact that an incriminating e-mail was withheld when his party made its first request raises concerns about the integrity of the access to information process in Manitoba.
"I think that the problem is that the freedom of information program has become something like the government protection program," said Goertzen.
Among the information the Tories received in its second FIPPA request was an e-mail from a civil servant to several other bureaucrats, including Melnick’s assistant deputy minister Ben Rempel, concerning the invitation. (Rempel wound up sending out the invitation.)
The first sentence of the missive, dated April 18, 2012, begins: "As requested by the Minister...," confirming Melnick’s role in the matter.
Goertzen said if the government does not provide an adequate explanation for failing to include the email in its first FIPPA request, the Conservatives will file a complaint with the Ombudsman’s office.
E-mail 'simply missed': government
Jeff Parr, deputy minister for the Department of Labour and Immigration (as the portfolio has been constituted as since last fall), issued a statement Friday afternoon explaining that the department simply missed the incriminating email when it was first asked to retrieve it in the initial freedom of information request.
"There was no political direction to hold the email -- it was simply missed at the department level," Parr said in a statement.
He said the department discovered the missed email after the provincial Ombudsman requested in June 2012 that the government take another look into its files to see if anything had been missed. "The email was discovered in the course of that second search and provided to the Ombudsman in June of 2012," Parr said.
Christine Melnick was dropped from cabinet this past October. In December, her involvement in directing a government bureaucrat to invite members of the public to a partisan political event was revealed in a report by the Ombudsman.
Melnick was expelled from the NDP caucus Feb. 4 after accusing Premier Greg Selinger of making her a scapegoat in the controversy. She claimed it was Selinger’s senior political advisers who were behind Rempel’s invitation.