Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tory staffer says privacy violated when utility's letter to her aired

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A staffer with the opposition Progressive Conservatives filed a complaint Friday with the provincial ombudsman claiming her privacy was violated under Manitoba's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA).

The complaint is the latest salvo by the Tories in their ongoing efforts to show there is an improper relationship between Manitoba Hydro and the Selinger government.

"Obviously, Hydro is, in effect, an arm of the political offices of the NDP when you see the way this whole thing was handled," Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen said on her behalf. "It suggests to me that there is an unseemly closeness between Hydro and the NDP political operation."

The complaint involves how Finance Minister Rosann Wowchuk's staff released a freedom-of- information reply to the media after a debate Thursday over a new $1.1- billion hydroelectric transmission line. The letter staff handed out was addressed to Tory staffer Susan Robinson from Manitoba Hydro's access and privacy officer, Robert Bettner.

The Tories say under FIPPA rules Bettner's letter should have gone to Robinson first, and that her privacy should not have been breached by the NDP handing it out to the media.

"Our reading of the act, it's clearly illegal," McFadyen said. "It wasn't the NDP's right to make that decision to release it publicly. It was Susan Robinson's right to make that decision."

The Tory complaint to the ombudsman is against NDP cabinet communications, Wowchuk and Bettner.

Ombudsman Irene Hamilton said her office will investigate the complaint, and if there is any validity to it, her office will speak to those involved to ensure it doesn't recur.

Hydro spokesman Glenn Schneider said late Friday the Crown corporation apologized to Robinson for how the matter was handled. A government spokesman said Robinson's name should have been blacked out, in keeping with spirit of FIPPA.

The Tory FIPPA request asked if Hydro had any internal information that outlined if there were any threats to power export revenue should Hydro build its new line down the east side of the province, not the longer route favoured by the New Democrats. Hydro's first response, dated Jan. 18, said it had no such information.

Hydro's second letter, released minutes after the debate, said a 2007 report addressed the matter. That report said environmental groups could hold up construction of an east- side line to protect the boreal forest.

A final route has to be picked in less than two years so construction can start in 2013. The Tories want the shorter, less costly east-side route.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 23, 2010 A11

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