Was there political interference in an Access to Information request on who went on vacation with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau? Documents obtained by The Rebel through Access to Information would seem to indicate that.
As has been reported by The Rebel and other media outlets, the Christmas vacation taken by Trudeau and his family has already been the subject of controversy.
CBC reported in August that the original flight manifest released publicly excluded three key names, Marian Pueyo, one of the nannies working for Trudeau and his family as well as Jean Grégoire and Estelle Blais, his in-laws. That original manifest was released in March. Months later, in the middle of the summer, a second manifest was released with those names added.
That is beyond odd.
Normally if something was redacted from an access to information request there would be a note indicating that for privacy reasons or security reasons, all reasons spelled out in the access to information act, why that information is not being released.
In this case there was no such explanation.
In fact, if you looked at the first release of manifest, there would be no indication that any information at all was missing.
So what happened?
That is not exactly clear, but what newly released documents show is that before any information was released, three staffers inside the Prime Minister’s office were contacted and asked what, if any information they would want removed from the flight manifest before it was released publicly.
Then magically, and without explanation, the three most politically inconvenient names were dropped from the manifest; the nanny and the in-laws.
Here is part of the email sent by Maureen Kay, operations manager with the 412 Squadron, the military wing that provides air transport to the government and other dignitaries including the Prime Minister.
It is addressed to several people including John Zerucelli, the director of operations in the Prime Minister’s office, his executive assistant Kate Vangerven and the manager of operations in the PMO, Noemie Julien.
The email read, in part:
“It has been determined that the enclosed Challenger Mission Report is of interest to your institution. It is requested that your office review the document and provide recommendations for the release of the information. Please note that rationale must be provided for any portions recommended for redaction.”
There is no reply from anyone included in the document asking for names to be dropped but, after this email, the politically embarrassing names are dropped with no explanation and no rationale for the redaction.
I’ve spoken to several former PMO staffers about this and they call the email, odd, unusual, potentially against the rules or illegal.
In fact, in the past, Liberals have berated the Conservatives over what they see as political inference in access to information releases.
In 2006 the Liberals called for an investigation after then PMO Director of Communications Sandra Buckler was cc’d on an email that included a reporters name. At that time the Liberals demanded an investigation.
In 2009 Sebatien Togneri, a staffer for then Public Works Minister Christian Paradis was found to have interfered in the release of an access request and the Commons erupted in furor.
Also of interest in this case of the passenger manifest is that officials in the Privy Council Office, the Prime Minister’s department, were given a minimum ten day heads up to prepare communications lines to answer any media questions about his vacation and who went with him.
A full letter was sent by Kimberly Empey at the Department of National Defence to the PCO on February 11th telling them that they may want to be ready.
“The enclosed document, relevant to the request, has been prepared for release in accordance with the ATIA. In order to ensure that your institution is allotted the necessary time to prepare communication materials related to this release, we are providing a copy of the portions of the record that may be of interest to you.”
It goes on to explain that they plan to release the documents on February 25th and are giving them time to prepare.
Former Conservative staffers I’ve spoken with at the PMO and ministerial level tell me that it would be common to get a heads up a day or so before something was released but never more than a week to prepare talking points and never with the request that political staff make recommended changes on what should be released.
What these documents show is a level of co-ordination and potential interference at the Trudeau PMO that goes against the openness and transparency he campaigned on, the promises he made.
On the face of it, there is enough here for the Information Commissioner to launch an investigation into political interference.
The question is, will she?