Project Dioxide data price tag raises further questions
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What price would you put on the public’s right to know the details of a secret RCMP investigation into former Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz and other key figures involved in questionable multimillion-dollar real estate and land development transactions?
That was the fee estimate it put on the release of information about Project Dioxide, an RCMP investigation into real estate transactions including the construction of four Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service stations. The projects all involved Shindico Realty, a firm owned by Sandy Shindleman, a close personal and business friend of Katz (mayor from 2004-14) and former city chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl.
The fee is excessive, punitive and suggests Manitoba Justice has something embarrassing or compromising to hide from public view. That something may explain why, after years of police investigation, prosecutors decided not to file charges against anyone involved in the deals.
Project Dioxide was a criminal investigation that ran parallel to another RCMP operation, Project Dalton, a fraud investigation into the construction of the Winnipeg Police Service downtown headquarters.
To the surprise and frustration of many, both Dioxide and Dalton ended without criminal charges being laid. Those concerns were amplified this year, when the City of Winnipeg used evidence gathered in the course of Project Dalton to secure a civil judgement against Sheegl.
Relying almost exclusively on evidence gathered by the Mounties, Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal determined Sheegl had accepted a $327,000 bribe from Caspian Construction in exchange for the awarding of the HQ contract.
In the wake of that judgment, Manitoba Justice has refused to comment on its decision not to lay charges. In a bid to find out what happened, the Free Press used the province’s Freedom of Information and Personal Privacy Act to gain access to Project Dioxide documents.
Under FIPPA, a government department can charge fees for preparing and vetting information before it is released. Sometimes, if the request is complex enough, it can request fees amounting to tens of thousands of dollars.
Critics, including experts in freedom of information legislation and Democracy Watch, an Ottawa-based watchdog organization that advocates for government accountability and transparency, decried the $32,000 fee as a cynical attempt to keep information about Project Dioxide out of the public eye.
“They definitely don’t want this information coming out.” – Kevin Walby
Those critics include University of Winnipeg associate Prof. Kevin Walby, an access to information specialist. Walby said the outlandish fees are particularly frustrating because Manitoba Justice could satisfy the Free Press request for information by doing a simple interview to discuss the basis for its decisions not to lay charges.
“They definitely don’t want this information coming out,” he said.
However, Walby said Manitoba Justice appears to have made a key blunder.
In sending the Free Press a fee estimate, it confirmed the information requested is, indeed, publicly accessible. Often, when government doesn’t want to release something, Walby said, it will simply refuse and challenge the applicant to go through months, if not years, of sparring with the ombudsman or arguing the case at the Court of Queen’s Bench.
It’s a long and expensive route, and many applicants simply give up. However, Walby said, Manitoba Justice seems to be wagering exorbitant fees will discourage the Free Press from pursuing the matter.
“They bluffed but they did it in a very amateurish way,” he said.
The Free Press can appeal the fee estimate to the Manitoba ombudsman. If the issue is still unresolved, the ombudsman could assign it to the information and privacy adjudicator, an officer of the legislative assembly empowered to “confirm or reduce a fee or order a refund of a fee in the appropriate circumstances.”
Still, that is a process that will take months to complete.
In addition to inadvertently confirming the information being requested is public, Manitoba Justice has also unwittingly made an even stronger case for an independent review of Katz-era real estate transactions.
Premier Heather Stefanson and her government have consistently rebuffed calls for an inquiry to get to the bottom of the questionable deals. Stefanson said her government was continuing to monitor the outcome of civil proceedings but believes the city can launch its own inquiry at any time.
What Stefanson may be saying is her government is in a conflict of interest. The public deserves to know how, in the face of all the evidence that came forward through the civil trial, Manitoba Justice could not muster even a single criminal charge. The longer the premier denies the public that information, the more she becomes part of the problem.
With more civil proceedings to come, the premier needs to do something more than stand idly by while her government tries to charge a newspaper FIPPA fees equivalent to the cost of a mini-van.
Stefanson needs to acknowledge that is not justice. It’s obstruction.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.
Updated on Monday, August 8, 2022 7:37 PM CDT: Kevin Walby's spelling fixed