October 9, 2013 7:37 pm
Updated: October 9, 2013 9:41 pm

Government refuses to release severance information for former Chief of Staff

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EDMONTON – Despite requests to the Executive Council, a formal Access to Information (FOIP) request, and a review by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, the government is refusing to release information about Stephen Carter’s severance.

Carter was Chief of Staff to the Premier for about six months. He was replaced in April 2012.

What was his severance?

The Executive Council – which represents the premier – has refused to answer the question; deferring to the FOIP process.

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Global News made an access to information request, under FOIP legislation, more than a year ago, and the Executive Council still refused.

“If she’s embarrassed by the amount of dollars that she’s paying then that’s something she should address in her future hires,” said leader of the Official Wildrose Opposition, Danielle Smith, “but hiding it and saying the public shouldn’t have access, that’s just wrong.”

Global News then requested a review with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, which ruled the public has a right to know how much Carter received in severance.

“It’s a huge win for the public and the cause of accountability and transparency in the province,” said Derek Fildebrandt, Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

When asked about the severance details on Wednesday, Premier Redford replied: “well, there’s a process in place for that and I’m not going to step into it.”

According to the Premier’s Office, the Executive Council is the bureaucratic arm that supports the Premier – they are not political staff. A spokesperson says FOIP requests are therefore processed independently of and without direction from the Premier’s Office. According to the spokesperson, given that the FOIP process is independent of the Premier, there is nothing for her to comply with, as the opposition has contended.

In its response to the request for information, the Executive Council refused to disclose the records citing two reasons under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act: harm to personal privacy of a third party and harm to the economic interests of a public body.

(Read the full report from the Office of Commissioner below)

According to the letter from the Office of the Commissioner, Carter thought the media would use the information to discredit him, and that would result in harm to himself, his family and his business.

However, the Office of the Commissioner wrote: “In my opinion, the disclosure of this record will not tarnish the Third Party’s reputation nor unfairly expose him to harm.”

The Executive Council supported Carter’s objection, and also said releasing Carter’s severance would harm its ability to attract people to the Chief of Staff position.

However, the Office of the Commissioner ruled against the Executive Council’s arguments.

“I am not convinced that individuals would seriously consider not taking the position because their salary or severance would be released under an access to information request,” read the Privacy Commission’s report.

“The Premier’s Office is saying that this is somehow going to damage the government,” remarks Fildebrandt, “very bizarre…especially in light of the premier’s commitment to transparency around salaries, around severance and around expenses.”

“We’re seeing something completely against the spirit of that commitment to openness and transparency. We’re seeing them actively try to hide information that everybody knows they have a right to see.”

Smith agrees. “If she wants to lead the way on matters of transparency, she should release the amount of severances.”

In the past, the government has had to disclose severance. Back in 2007, the Office of the Commissioner ruled the government had to release the severances of former chief of staff to Ralph Klein, Rod Love, and Alberta’s representative in Washington, Murray Smith.

The Office of the Commissioner also found that releasing the information would serve the interest of accountability.

“Public scrutiny relates to public interest, accountability, and fairness,” read the report from the Office of the Commissioner. “In my view, releasing the exact departure date and the severance amount of a very senior non-elected official, who is employed by the head of the Alberta government, serves the interest of accountability and meets the test for disclosure for the purpose of public scrutiny.”

“It’s really encouraging to see the Privacy Commissioner recommend that the full record should be released,” says Ian Urquhart, a professor of political science at the University of Alberta.

“The notion that the economic interests of the Public Body [Executive Council] are at risk here…I think that notion, frankly, is just laughable,” he adds. “It’s not the economic interests of the government that are at stake here, it’s their political interests that are at stake.”

“This just screams out loud and clear that they don’t want to be open to particular scrutiny that would threaten political interests and threaten the position of the premier,” says Urquhart.

The Office of the Commissioner concluded that the Executive Council’s rebuttal was not sound, and that the full record of Carter’s severance should be disclosed.

“The sum paid must be huge,” said Liberal leader Raj Sherman, “because the Redford Conservatives are sure working hard to hide the truth from Albertans who definitely would be angry about how much money is being wasted.”

The Executive Council had until Oct. 4 to respond to the Privacy Commission’s decision.  The Executive Council is still refusing to release the severance details.

“For the government to defy those rulings is simply completely beyond anything I’ve ever heard,” said NDP Leader Brian Mason. “The government has an obligation to follow its own laws.”

“I’m shocked at Redford’s refusal to comply with the direction of the Privacy Commissioner,” echoed Sherman. “Why won’t they tell Albertans how much money they’re spending or wasting?”

“Albertans have a right to know how much money is being paid out.”

Global News has contacted Stephen Carter for comment, but he has not responded to our request.

At this time, the public still does not know who got how much, only that a total of $2 million was paid out in severance over the last three years.

“Two million in the Premier’s Office alone may be not much to Premier Redford, but it’s twenty nurses who could look after Albertans who are suffering each and every day for a whole year. And, for Albertans, that’s a lot of money that can achieve a lot of good,” said Sherman.

While Sherman argues the dollar amount is important for Albertans to know, Urquhart also feels disclosure is important in principle.

“It’s not so much the dollars that matter; it’s the value and principal behind it that is so crucial. If the severance payment was negligible, it still should be released…It should be an expectation that the public has – and government should realize – that when a senior, non-elected official leaves office, that they have a right to know the terms of that severance.”

With files from Vassy Kapelos, Global News

The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner’s review.

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