‘Completely outrageous’

High processing fees for freedom of information requests slammed


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Manitoba Justice wants nearly $32,000 to process three freedom of information requests seeking Crown documents related to a secret RCMP investigation into the scandal-plagued administration of Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/08/2022 (234 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Manitoba Justice wants nearly $32,000 to process three freedom of information requests seeking Crown documents related to a secret RCMP investigation into the scandal-plagued administration of Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz.

Kevin Walby, access to information specialist and associate professor in the department of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, called the fee requests “completely outrageous.”

“It’s political, and FIPPA (Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act) never should be… I think it’s a political strategy of government agencies to block access to the public. It really goes against the spirit of freedom of information law, and I’m fairly certain it goes against the letter of the law, too,” Walby said.

In May, the Free Press revealed the existence of RCMP Project Dioxide: a criminal probe into a string of city hall real estate transactions, as well as the construction of four Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service stations by Shindico Realty, and an associated, aborted land swap.

The investigation, which was never formally announced or revealed to the public, ran parallel to the better-known RCMP Project Dalton: the multi-year, multimillion-dollar fraud investigation into the construction of the Winnipeg Police Service headquarters.

“(Dioxide) was tasked with reviewing audits provided to RCMP in relation to a review of real estate transactions involving the City of Winnipeg, and the construction of (WFPS) stations,” Sgt. Breanne Chanel wrote in a 2017 sworn affidavit.

Chanel served as lead investigator on RCMP Project Dioxide from November 2014 to June 2015.

In May, Mounties spokeswoman Tara Seel confirmed the existence of Project Dioxide to the Free Press, saying it closed without criminal charges but declining further comment.

The Free Press then submitted three freedom of information requests to Manitoba Justice, requesting documents from Manitoba Prosecution Services regarding RCMP Project Dioxide for specific periods of time.

The processing fees requested by the provincial government for the requests were $14,100, $7,200, and $10,680, respectively, for a total of $31,980.

“This is a big deal, and it’s a case with obvious public interest,” Walby said. “It’s pretty sloppy and pretty amateur to just do a grandiose fee estimate, because it’s so blatantly wrong.

“There have been indicators the current government sees FIPPA not as a benefit for citizens but as a problem for them.”

Those comments were echoed by Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch Canada, who says it fits a broader pattern of government misuse of access to information across the country, since officials face no repercussions for breaking the rules.

“The public should never have to pay twice for information that has been gathered by a government institution. We’re already paying for it to be gathered. And if the institution is not managed properly so it can answer access requests easily, that’s the institution’s fault,” Conacher said.

“They should not be allowed to charge fees for these kinds of requests, and certainly should not be requesting these kinds of excessive fees to discourage the public from accessing the information.”

In addition, Conacher said Manitoba Crown attorneys should be “ashamed” for not providing the public with more information as to why charges were not laid in RCMP Project Dalton and Project Dioxide — given the nature of the allegations that sparked the criminal probes.

“Best practice in Canada is there should be public explanations issued by prosecutors to explain the results of investigations and decisions not to prosecute, and it has been for many years,” he said.

Manitoba Justice defended its fee requests in a written statement sent to the Free Press.

“The volume of electronic disclosure in this case was unprecedented and reviewing five years of documentation would be an enormous undertaking,” said an unnamed provincial spokesman.

NDP MLA and justice critic Nahanni Fontaine said the provincial government should be looking to provide citizens with as much information as possible on the two investigations, and pointed to the fact it has so far resisted all calls for a public inquiry.

“Why wouldn’t a government want to get to the bottom of what happened? Why wouldn’t they want to be transparent? What is preventing them from being transparent on this file? To me, it raises questions about what they’re trying to hide,” Fontaine said.

“This is an example of a government actively trying to hide information from the public… As a means to doing that, they’re asking the public, (reporters), the Opposition to pay for it…It’s anti-democratic and the anti-thesis to transparency.”

RCMP Project Dalton closed without criminal charges in December 2019.

The City of Winnipeg launched civil litigation against dozens of defendants connected to the construction project in January 2020.

In April, Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal ruled former City of Winnipeg chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl accepted a bribe in connection to the awarding of the construction contract on job. Sheegl has appealed the ruling.

The case against the other defendants on the lawsuit remains before the court.

While few details are known about RCMP Project Dioxide, the sworn statement from Chanel reveals in March 2015, the Mounties tapped FINTRAC (Canada’s financial intelligence unit, which works arm’s-length from law enforcement) as part of the probe.

The FINTRAC records obtained by the RCMP for Project Dioxide included information on electronic banking transfers connected to Katz’s and Sheegl’s financial interests in the United States — specifically, Arizona, from June 2008 to July 2010.

No specific allegations of wrongdoing are made in the sworn statement obtained by the Free Press.

However, the document does reveal the RCMP sought “cautioned statements” from Katz (mayor of Winnipeg from 2004-14) and Sheegl, through their lawyer Robert Tapper, between mid-March and early May 2017.

A “caution” must be given by law enforcement when investigators seek to question someone about a suspected criminal offence.


Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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