A cabinet minister's aide resigned late Thursday over his meddling in at least four access-to-information requests, a case that initially spurred the Conservative government earlier this year to declare ministers responsible for the actions of their staff.
Sébastien Togneri had already been the subject of a probe by the Information Commissioner over his blocking of one access-to-information request while he worked as an adviser to then-Public Works minister Christian Paradis.
Mr. Togneri continued to work for Mr. Paradis after the minister moved to Natural Resources early in 2010, and told a Commons committee that he had only interfered in the release of information a single time.
But documents obtained by The Canadian Press show that Mr. Togneri tried to alter the release of at least three other packages of information, on sensitive subjects such as U.S. President Barack Obama's first official visit to Canada, and asbestos.
Mr. Paradis's spokeswoman Mary-Ann Dewey-Plante said in an emailed statement that Mr. Togneri had offered the minister his resignation and it had been accepted.
“Minister Paradis will be asking [current Public Works Minister Rona] Ambrose to refer this issue to the Information Commissioner,” the statement read.
Mr. Togneri had appeared before the Commons Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics committee in May, over his blocking of the release of information to The Canadian Press in July 2009. In that case, a bureaucrat was ordered to retrieve the package from the Public Works mailroom so as to remove files concerning the government's massive real-estate portfolio.
Mr. Togneri testified to the committee in May that it was the only time he had intervened in an access request. He also called his actions “stupid” and a “mistake.” A senior bureaucrat in the department later called it “an extraordinary circumstance.”
Mr. Togneri was supposed to return to testify again, but the Conservative government soon afterward declared that political staff members would be shielded from committees as would their work documents.
Mr. Paradis came to sit in Mr. Togneri's place, and senior Tories underlined the principle of ministerial accountability – that ministers were responsible for the actions of their political staff.
Liberal MP Wayne Easter, who sits on the committee that has yet to report on the case, said he sensed the “taint of a cover-up.”
“As we started to get into the issue and some evidence started to come out that was critical and showed the prevention of access, then the government just overnight in a flash took the opposite direction and said no, they weren't going to allow the witnesses or the emails to come forward,” Mr. Easter said.
Despite the fact that Mr. Togneri's own emails and correspondence were inaccessible to the committee, those of the bureaucrats he communicated with were sent along as requested.
The emails revealed a system in Mr. Paradis's office to vet access-to-information requests from the media and political parties. Bureaucrats bundled the “interesting” documents together and put them in a purple folder, waiting for Mr. Togneri to give the green light.
Although reviewing what's about to be made public is accepted practice in ministerial offices, partly to prepare the minister for questions about controversial revelations, altering or blocking the release of documents is forbidden by law.
One request for information about government preparations for Mr. Obama's first official visit to Canada also came under Mr. Togneri's scrutiny. He suggested bureaucrats had released too much information, and wanted some held back.
“I encourage the [Access to Information and Privacy] department to remove everything but the work order. It is part of daily operations to prepare for diplomatic visits,” Mr. Togneri wrote in July of 2009. “Hopefully, the ATIP that will be sent back up will have that change.”
In another instance, involving the backgrounds of members of a government panel examining asbestos, bureaucrats were left scratching their heads when Mr. Togneri directed them to “please exclude the following that is highlighted.”
Mr. Togneri also directed changes to be made to access-to-information documents being released involving question-period notes prepared for Paradis.
“It is signed to go out on the condition that the changes I requested be made,” Mr. Togneri wrote.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's chief of staff, Guy Giorno, issued a memo on access-to-information matters in February, reminding all political staff in ministers' offices of the laws they must abide by.
“No political staff member has received a delegation of authority under the Act and therefore no political staff member has authority to make access-to-information decisions,” Mr. Giorno wrote.