Former Tory aide trying to create chill around Commons committee: NDP

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OTTAWA - The NDP is accusing a former Conservative staffer of trying to scare MPs and others out of scrutinizing interference by political aides in access-to-information files.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/09/2011 (4083 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA – The NDP is accusing a former Conservative staffer of trying to scare MPs and others out of scrutinizing interference by political aides in access-to-information files.

Sebastien Togneri, a former assistant to the public works minister, wrote to three organizations earlier this month warning them to stop making false and defamatory claims about him. In August, he warned the information commissioner about “consequences” for “grandstanding” during her investigation into his actions.

The Togneri case created a political headache for the Tories when it was revealed he had directed public servants to stop the release of documents under the Access to Information Act. Although he originally said he only did it once, other cases of meddling later emerged and he resigned his post as adviser to Christian Paradis.

The information commissioner concluded in a report to Parliament that Togneri had interfered in the release, but the RCMP subsequently said they would not be laying any charges. The RCMP have never laid charges under the act.

That spurred the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Newspapers Canada and the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association in August to ask a Commons committee to review the act and make sure that there is no loophole for political staffers.

The access to information, privacy and ethics committee convened for the first time this fall on Thursday, and heard from Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault.

New Democrat MP Charlie Angus suggested Togneri could be interfering with the rights of MPs to do their jobs by threatening a “SLAPP suit” to the groups that had written to the committee. The word is an acronym standing for “strategic lawsuit against public participation” and refers to suits filed to silence critics.

“I find this attempt to use legal SLAPP suits to tell citizens that they can’t come to our committee, or to try and obstruct citizens from trying to (encourage) a parliamentary committee to investigate — something that’s clearly a cornerstone of our democracy — to be outrageous and a possible serious breach of privilege as parliamentarians,” Angus told MPs.

The chairman of the committee, New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen, said he hopes Togneri wasn’t trying to create a chill, predicting the reverse effect.

“I don’t think threatening commissioners, threatening members of Parliament, SLAPP suits against groups who are trying to find basic information about government, is the way that anyone should conduct themselves,” Cullen said in an interview.

“I don’t know this fellow, but we can see by the work of the (information) commissioner that it’s above board, it’s entirely ethical, and to suggest otherwise is to impugn her reputation and the work of Parliament.”

When the RCMP announced in August they would not be proceeding against Togneri, the former staffer applauded the decision and lashed out against Legault.

“It is my hope that in the future, Ms. Legault and her office will demonstrate caution and understand the consequences of grandstanding against a political staffer,” Togneri wrote, without describing those consequences.

Legault wouldn’t comment on Togneri’s statements directly, but defended her record. She still has three other related investigations into interference underway.

“I really do stand by my work, I stand by my office’s work in the investigation which resulted in the special report to Parliament and, frankly, I am in the hands of parliamentarians to judge the work that we did in this file,” Legault said.

She added that she had concerns about the wording of the act. Although she can investigate whether anybody has concealed, altered or destroyed government records, she can only share information with the attorney general about the actions of public servants. She cannot pass along her evidence on political staffers.

The Conservatives on the committee asked no questions about the Togneri case, but criticized Angus for “saying outrageous things about Sebastien.”

“It never ceases to amaze me, this week we see in the press members of the NDP are out actively lobbying or indicating that they believe folks trafficking in narcotics just require a little more love, but Sebastien Togneri should be publicly flogged and perhaps executed — if they could get their heads around execution,” said Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro, parliamentary secretary to the prime minister.

Togneri left government in 2010, but resurfaced during the spring 2011 federal election as a campaign volunteer with a Conservative candidate in Edmonton. He quickly left the campaign after his involvement was revealed by The Canadian Press.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version referred to ‘information minister” Legault

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