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Privy council withholds Senate records under access law

Sen. Mike Duffy shields his eyes as he arrives at the Senate on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick.
Sen. Mike Duffy shields his eyes as he arrives at the Senate on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick.

OTTAWA – It’s not that there aren’t any records in the prime minister’s department about four famous current and former senators.

It’s just that we can’t see them.

An access to information request filed to the Privy Council Office by the federal NDP for records relating to Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau, Pamela Wallin and retired senator Mac Harb turned up 28 pages – all but one of them withheld in its entirety from the public.

The move has the opposition calling foul.

“I am very disturbed because it seems to me that the Privy Council Office is doing political protection,” said MP Charlie Angus, the NDP’s ethics critic.

“We’re talking about criminal acts that may have been committed, and possible collusions…They’re basically telling us they have to protect a cover up.”

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The only information released by Privy Council, the bureaucracy that supports the prime minister and cabinet, is two emails dealing with other access to information requests. The rest is blank.

A spokesman said PCO has exemptions that were applied in accordance with the provisions of the Access to Information Act.

The letter cites three different sections of the act dealing with privacy, an account of “consultations or deliberations” in which government employees, a minister or a minister’s staff participate, and solicitor-client privilege.

The request asked for records relating to the senators created as of March 26, 2013 – the day after Duffy repaid the Senate more than $90,000 in expenses with former chief of staff Nigel Wright’s money.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly denied he knew about Wright’s deal with Duffy, and said he has instructed the PMO to cooperate fully with the RCMP investigation.

In November, RCMP court documents revealed a series of emails between Wright and others in the PMO, in the months leading up to the repayment.

Angus argued it’s important to know who – if anyone – knew or was involved in Wright’s deal with Duffy, including former legal adviser Benjamin Perrin. The privy council initially said it had deleted Perrin’s emails, but later said that was a mistake and they had been found. The government said it then gave the emails to the RCMP.

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“This is the issue here, the inappropriate involvement of the prime minister’s office with these senators. Who was involved? What was the deal?” said Angus.

“I think this is the worst part of the scandal, is that it’s eroding Canadians’ confidence in what should be non-partisan levers of government that are there to protect public interest.”