EDMONTON – Alberta Premier Dave Hancock said Wednesday he sees nothing wrong with an internal government-wide memo directing political appointees to get involved in freedom of information requests.
Hancock also said the directive sent out last year by then-deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk was never implemented.
“I don’t know if it (ever) had any force,” said Hancock.”I wasn’t aware that he’s sent it out. I don’t think I’d even seen it.”
The memo has become, depending on which side one talks to, the smoking gun or a red herring over long-standing criticism that the Progressive Conservative government routinely meddles in freedom of information requests to mitigate potential public relations damage.
Such requests, filed by journalists, citizens and politicians, have proven valuable tools to unearth information to hold governments to account.
Last November, a Post Media series used information from freedom of information and privacy requests, or FOIP for short, to reveal that the province had covered up the deaths of 89 children in care since 1999.
FOIP legislation specifies the process be independent and free from political interference on what gets released and when.
The same week the Post Media series came out, Lukaszuk wrote a memo on Nov. 29 to all cabinet ministers directing them to deliver weekly updates to his office on what FOIP documents were being sent out.
It also directed departmental press secretaries — who are political appointees — to “gather information about FOIP requests which have the potential to generate media, session, political or other reputational issues for government.”
If necessary, added Lukaszuk, the press secretaries should then “prepare key messages and mitigating strategies.”
Information and Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton, in a letter to Lukaszuk a week after the memo, questioned the practice and the perception of inserting press secretaries directly into the FOIP process.
“It presents a potential perception that (FOIP) releases could be delayed until the ‘mitigating strategies and messages’ are finalized,” wrote Clayton.
Both Hancock and Lukaszuk said Wednesday the letter refers only to press secretaries giving cabinet ministers a heads-up on freedom of information requests coming out that week in order for the ministers to field any questions that arise.
“(There’s) nothing wrong inherently in what he (Lukaszuk) sent out,” said Hancock.
Lukaszuk also said that the policy was never implemented, citing a cabinet shuffle in mid-December that saw him replaced by Hancock as deputy premier under then-premier Alison Redford.
Reporters asked Lukaszuk why he didn’t mention that fact when he first defended his memo Tuesday after the Wildrose party used a leaked document to bring the issue to light.
“Because it’s a non-issue to begin with,” answered Lukaszuk. “There was never any interference with the information.”
All three opposition parties said the evidence is clear the government is meddling.
NDP Leader Brian Mason said he has sent a letter to Clayton asking she conduct a broader review to ensure the independence of the FOIP process has not been compromised.
“We want to make sure that documents aren’t disappearing and they’re not changing the story (as a result of the FOIP request),” said Mason.
Mason noted the government abandoned construction of a secret taxpayer-funded penthouse suite for Redford on top of a government building after a FOIP request was filed.
Last week, the Liberals tabled documents they said revealed high-ranking officials were interfering with the province’s freedom of information process.
Liberal house leader Laurie Blakeman said delaying freedom of information requests for political reasons can have serious consequences.
She cited the Post Media series, which came to light after the government fought the newspapers for years to avoid revealing information on children dying in government care.
“How many more kids would have died before that information came out?” said Blakeman.
Lukaszuk told the house Wednesday afternoon that cabinet ministers get no more than five days notice on freedom of information document releases.
As he said that, CBC-TV reported leaked documents it says revealed that Health Minister Fred Horne’s staff was given a two-month head start in 2012 to craft messages to rebut freedom of information documents set to be delivered to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.