The RCMP have been called in to probe a Harper government aide's meddling with an access-to-information request.
The Mounties are now conducting a preliminary inquiry to determine whether there is enough evidence to warrant a full investigation into the actions of Sebastian Togneri, a former Tory staffer.
The development, on the cusp of a possible election, is bad timing for the Conservatives. It gives the opposition more fodder for accusations the government is obstructionist and controlling – even though it also allows the Tories to decline comment on the topic, saying the matter is in the hands of the Mounties.
Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose said Monday she alerted the RCMP at the recommendation of Canada's access-to-information watchdog, Suzanne Legault, who has spent a year probing Mr. Togneri's interference in a 2009 request from the media.
The federal Information Commissioner concluded, according to The Canadian Press, that Mr. Togneri clearly interfered with a request even though he lacked the legal authority to do so.
Canada's access-to-information law governs a system that allows the public to request government records for a nominal fee but also makes it illegal for anyone to obstruct this. Those convicted of concealing or altering information – or anyone found directing them to do so – can face a fine of up to $10,000 or as long as two years in jail.
Mr. Togneri resigned from the Harper government last September. The former aide to then-Public-Works minister Christian Paradis intervened in the release of information on that department's real estate portfolio by ordering bureaucrats to recall a package of material being mailed to a journalist.
"Well un-release it," Mr. Togneri said in a July 27, 2009, e-mail to a senior official in Public Work's access-to-information division. "What's the point of asking for my opinion if you're just going to release it!"
The department had initially consented to releasing the requested information in its entirety but following Mr. Togneri's intervention Public Works heavily censored the documents and made only a small portion available.
Ms. Legault, the Information Commissioner, plans to include her findings on the Togneri case in a special report to Parliament March 21 on the topic of interference in access-to-information requests.
Ms. Ambrose distanced the government from Mr. Togneri Monday, saying her decision to send the matter to the RCMP shows the Tories are committed to openness and accountability.
"Let me be clear, no current member of this government is involved in this case. Our government expects all public servants and political aides to abide by the Access to Information Act."
Liberal House Leader David McGuinty accused the Tories of sacrificing Mr. Togneri to save themselves.
"We were joking inside our Liberal caucus that the Conservative government is going to have to get a new bus because they have thrown so many bodies under the existing one they need a new one," Mr. McGuinty said.
The Information Commissioner's probe was triggered by a Canadian Press complaint, and the wire service is the only organization outside government that has received a copy of Ms. Legault's report. CP says the investigation also found that all but one public servant handling the request failed in their duties to uphold the law.
Ms. Legault's Togneri report is the first of at least four by her office into political interference, according to The Canadian Press. There are separate probes into National Defence and Foreign Affairs, as well as a larger inquiry into other problematic access-to-information requests at Public Works.