EDMONTON — Alberta Jobs Minister Thomas Lukaszuk denied Tuesday that as deputy premier he orchestrated government-wide interference in the freedom of information process for partisan political reasons.
Lukaszuk said the system to have Progressive Conservative political appointees track and respond to ongoing freedom of information requests was for informational purposes only.
“What we tried to address was to give (cabinet) ministers an ability to have a heads-up on what has been released (under freedom of information),” said Lukaszuk.
Freedom of information requests are used by journalists, citizens and the opposition to uncover information not made public by the government.
Quite often, such revelations have proven embarrassing to those in power.
Documents released by the opposition Wildrose party and by Lukaszuk on Tuesday revealed that last November, Lukaszuk, then deputy premier to then-premier Alison Redford, directed changes to the process.
The Nov. 29, 2013, memo directed cabinet ministers to collect information on documents being released by their departments under freedom of information rules. Lukaszuk told the cabinet ministers to deliver the information to his office on a weekly basis.
He also directed that department press secretaries — who are political appointees — collect information on those freedom of information requests “which have the potential to generate media, session, political or other reputational issues for government.”
If necessary, added Lukaszuk, the press secretaries were then to “prepare key messages and mitigating strategies.”
Copies of the memo were also sent to Redford’s senior officials.
Lukaszuk stressed Tuesday that the project had the blessing of Information and Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton.
He distributed to reporters copies of his Nov. 29 memo and the letter Clayton sent to him a week later.
However, Clayton, in her letter, expressed misgivings with Lukaszuk’s information collection plan.
Why, asked Clayton in the letter, are cabinet ministers being asked to submit to Lukaszuk updates on freedom of information requests in order for Lukaszuk to turn around and deliver that same information right back to them in the form of a heads-up note?
Clayton said that suggests a system designed, more than anything else, to keep Lukaszuk and Redford updated on all freedom of information requests.
That, said Clayton, “increases the potential risk of allegations of interference in the release of information.”
She said that giving press secretaries time to craft message strategies in anticipation of the release of the information also suggests this was not simply a heads-up exercise.
And she said having press secretaries get involved in the process raises the risk of further delays in information being released.
Lukaszuk made the information public after Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith presented an internal government email that referred to his Nov. 29 memo.
Smith told reporters it was a concerned freedom of information officer who leaked the information to her party in the first place.
“We need to make sure that the process is independent,” said Smith.
“They (the government) actually directed their press secretaries to get involved in active freedom of information requests. And that’s just not allowed.”