The Selinger government is being accused of withholding a key email in a scandal involving a former cabinet minister.
The Opposition Conservatives said Friday they were denied the email when they filed a request under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) in May 2012.
The Tories wanted to find out whether then-immigration and multiculturalism minister Christine Melnick had directed her assistant deputy minister, Ben Rempel, to invite members of the city's immigrant community to a legislative debate.
'I think that the problem is that the freedom-of-information program has become something like the government-protection program'
The FIPPA request failed to turn up evidence that Melnick directed Rempel to issue the invite -- something she denied at the time.
However, when the Tories filed a virtually identical access-to-information request this past January -- the second one broadening the time period -- they received a document that would have forced Melnick to admit her involvement 17 months before it was revealed by the provincial ombudsman last December.
Progressive Conservative house leader Kelvin Goertzen said the fact an incriminating email 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," Goertzen said Friday.
Among the information the Tories received in response to its second FIPPA request was an email from a civil servant to several other bureaucrats, including Rempel, concerning the invitation to immigrant groups for what became a highly partisan legislative debate.
The missive, dated April 18, 2012, begins: "As requested by the Minister...," confirming Melnick's role in the matter.
The Selinger government left it to a senior civil servant on Friday to explain why the incriminating email was not turned over to the Tories when they made their initial request.
Jeff Parr, deputy minister for the Department of Labour and Immigration (as the portfolio is now known), issued a statement Friday saying the email in question should have been included in the 2012 response but was inadvertently missed in the original search.
"There was no political direction to hold the email -- it was simply missed at the department level," Parr said.
He 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, a bureaucrat, had engaged in partisan political action by issuing the invite. He later ruled Rempel's actions raised concerns but broke no rules.)
The 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.
Goertzen told reporters he doesn't buy the idea the incriminating email was simply overlooked the first time around.
When the FIPPA request was first made in May 2012, Melnick's involvement -- or not -- in sending the invite was one of the big issues of the day at the legislature, he said.
"You'd think if ever there was a time when there was heightened scrutiny and there was excessive due diligence to make sure that everything was done properly, that this would have been the time," he said Friday.
The Tories plan to file a complaint with the Ombudsman's office over the government's handling of the initial FIPPA request.