Department of Defence (DND) staff may have committed an offence when processing an access to information request during the failed prosecution of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, according to Canada’s information watchdog, prompting her to disclose her concern to the attorney general.
In a report released online Monday, Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard detailed her lengthy investigation into the DND’s handling of access to information requests during pre-trial hearings for Norman between January 2017 and December 2018.
The report found several issues with how the DND responds to and processes those requests, which she said fell short of the standards laid out in the Access to Information Act.
“Information also came to my attention during the investigation that, in my view, was evidence of the possible commission of an offence under the Act during the processing of an access request related to Vice-Admiral Norman,” Maynard wrote.
“Since I do not have the authority to investigate such offences, I disclosed this information to the Attorney General of Canada in February 2019.”
When reached by Global News, the DND revealed that in December 2018, a Canadian Armed Forces member alleged that another member “may have obstructed information in contravention of the Access to Information Act” during the Norman case.
The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service looked into the allegations, a spokesperson said, but concluded in May 2019 that there was not “sufficient evidence to pursue criminal or service offence charges in the matter.”
That investigation was partially what sparked Maynard’s own, wider probe, the DND clarified. In her report, Maynard said findings that DND “inappropriately withheld information in response to a request” compelled her to investigate further.
Materials included with the OIC report show Maynard sent a letter to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan on Jan. 16, 2020, that laid out her findings and recommendations from the investigation. It also mentioned her disclosure of the possible offence to the attorney general.
In his response on Feb. 28, Sajjan did not react to the mention of a possible offence, only outlining the DND’s commitment to adopting Maynard’s recommendations and improving the way it processes access to information requests.
The DND told Global News it is continuing to make those improvements and is “committed to meeting our obligations in this area.”
Global News has also reached out to the Ministry of Justice for further comment.
Norman was the second-in-command of the Canadian military until early 2017, when he was relieved of his duties and later charged with breach of trust for allegedly leaking classified information related to a plan by the then-newly elected Liberals to freeze a sole-sourced shipbuilding contract.
Norman pleaded not guilty to the charge, and was ultimately vindicated when Crown prosecutors stayed the charge in May 2019.
The case was dogged by allegations of political interference by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after he publicly predicted the case would end up in court before charges were officially laid.
The timing of Maynard’s disclosure lands squarely in the midst of the SNC-Lavalin scandal. By that time, Jody Wilson-Raybould, a central figure in that scandal, had been replaced by David Lametti.
Lametti and federal prosecutors have denied any political interference in the Norman case.
—With files from Amanda Connolly