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Pallister off the grid during vacations: records show

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister was out of contact with cabinet ministers and senior Manitoba government staff during two vacations in Costa Rica, records show.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister was out of contact with cabinet ministers and senior Manitoba government staff during two vacations in Costa Rica, records show.

During two summer vacations in Costa Rica last year, Brian Pallister was virtually unplugged from cabinet members and senior government staff back home in Manitoba.

There are no records of incoming or outgoing international calls for government business in July and August from the landline at his Central American vacation spot, according to the results of a freedom of information request.

There was no record of incoming or outgoing calls for government business on the private cellphone in his wife Esther Pallister’s name during the time last summer when he was in Costa Rica.

There were no emails during that period to and from his government email account.

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During two summer vacations in Costa Rica last year, Brian Pallister was virtually unplugged from cabinet members and senior government staff back home in Manitoba.

There are no records of incoming or outgoing international calls for government business in July and August from the landline at his Central American vacation spot, according to the results of a freedom of information request.

There was no record of incoming or outgoing calls for government business on the private cellphone in his wife Esther Pallister’s name during the time last summer when he was in Costa Rica.

There were no emails during that period to and from his government email account.

The only evidence of contact with government staff during his summer vacations — totalling approximately 19 days — are two emails from an account in the name of Esther Pallister — one on Aug. 31 in which she forwarded the premier’s thoughts on three forthcoming government announcements and the other on July 14 that discussed Esther Pallister’s participation at an upcoming government event.

According to past government statements, Pallister last year vacationed in Costa Rica from approximately July 8-15 and Aug. 25 to Sept. 4. He was also away in Costa Rica from Dec. 17 to Jan. 3, 2017.

The premier has long maintained he does a considerable amount of work while away in Costa Rica, but according to the results of numerous freedom of information requests, he does this work largely on his own with little contact with government ministers or senior staff.

NDP MLA Andrew Swan, who served in cabinets of two premiers, said he is astonished by the degree to which Pallister appears to remove himself from the business of running Manitoba when he is out of the country.

"This is highly unusual and it’s very, very hard to believe," he said. "Both Greg Selinger and Gary Doer were in constant contact."

He said as far as he knows former Progressive Conservative premier Gary Filmon was also in frequent contact with ministers and staff while away on holidays.

Pallister’s PCs won election April 19, 2016 and the cabinet was sworn into office on May 3. When Pallister was out of the country last summer, the government was only in its third and fourth month in office.

"There were real events happening," Swan said. "It was during one of his times in Costa Rica that Omnitrax announced they were closing the port of Churchill (to grain shipments).There were serious, grave situations to be dealt with in Manitoba."

This week, due to results from NDP freedom of information requests, it was learned that the premier used his wife’s cellphone to participate in only two phone calls with cabinet ministers and staff while vacationing in Costa Rica at any time over the past 13 months. Both occurred on Dec. 19.

While the phone was registered in Esther Pallister’s name, it appears that it was only used for government business. According to a response to a freedom of information request, some 82 calls were made on the phone between May 3, 2016 and Jan. 29, 2017. With help from the provincial ombudsman’s office, the NDP received details on 74 calls involving the premier or his wife and government staff. Another eight calls were excluded from the FIPPA request because they dealt with constituency matters.

It appears that Esther Pallister did not use the phone — in her name — for personal calls.

The province initially fought the release of details of government phone calls and emails from accounts held by Esther Pallister, but changed its mind on July 14. That same day the government issued a policy directive requiring that cabinet ministers and staff use their government-assigned email accounts, phones text and messaging applications when conducting government business.

What appears to have prompted the change was the provincial ombudsman’s stance that records of government business — whether conducted on a private or government-owned device — falls under freedom of information laws and is available to the public on demand.

The ombudsman released its seven-page decision to that effect on Thursday, supporting an NDP appeal of the government’s initial refusal to release the records.

Swan said it appears that the private phone, belonging to Esther Pallister, was used solely for government business.

"There’s nothing to suggest that this was a phone that was used by her in the course of her regular day," he said. "There now appears to be no other way to look at this except to say that this was a way (for the premier) to get around the (freedom of information) law."

Brian Pallister has yet to comment on the release of government emails and phone records from accounts in his wife’s name.

However, Justice Minister Heather Stefanson defended the government and her premier Thursday, saying the PCs identified gaps in Manitoba’s government smartphone and email policies and corrected them. She pointed out that there were no information leaks as a result of the use of private phones and emails.

Stefanson also strongly objected to suggestions that her boss doesn’t work hard.

"Frankly, I’ve had enough of the premier’s name and his family’s name being bantered about on these issues. He’s one of the hardest working guys I know, (and) has never taken his eye off the ball of what Manitobans elected us to do," she said.

"What Manitobans want is affordable, effective delivery of services in Manitoba and that’s exactly what we’re going to give them."

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Larry Kusch.

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History

Updated on Thursday, August 3, 2017 at 8:39 PM CDT: deletes subhead

8:48 PM: changed photo

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