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Tory aide tried to suppress $5-million Olympic ad bill

Ryan Sparrow and Prime Minister Stephen Harper

A senior Conservative official repeatedly intervened last month to try and suppress the revelation that Ottawa spent $5-million on a TV advertising blitz surrounding the Vancouver Olympics, new records show.

In a tense exchange of e-mails over a two-day period, ministerial aide Ryan Sparrow blocked attempts by bureaucrats to reveal the price tag of the ads that aimed to promote Conservative budgetary measures.

The civil service had prepared the numbers in response to a question from The Globe and Mail, but records just released under the Access to Information Act show that Mr. Sparrow managed to temporarily hold back on their release.

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"No figures," bureaucrats were told by Mr. Sparrow, the director of communications in the office of Diane Finley, the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development.

The department went on to suggest the information was simply unavailable.

Mr. Sparrow has already been a lightning rod of opposition attacks, and the Conservative Party is particularly vulnerable to allegations that it is hiding information from Canadians.

Asked about his handling of the file yesterday, Mr. Sparrow said "an appropriate response was provided by the department," because the advertising campaign was under way at the time and the final cost - almost identical to the department's projection - was provided three weeks later.

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During the 2008 election campaign, Mr. Sparrow was suspended as the Conservative Party's communications director for pointing out the Liberal ties of the father of a fallen Canadian soldier who had been critical of the government.

It also was revealed this year that another Conservative staffer at Public Works Canada intervened to stop bureaucrats from releasing a report to The Canadian Press. The Prime Minister's Office responded to the incident by calling on political aides to respect the government's commitment to transparency and allow the bureaucracy to do its work.

But in recent weeks, the opposition has been all over the Harper government over its refusal to release unredacted documents to a parliamentary committee into the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan.

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The back-and-forth related to the Olympic advertising campaign started on Feb. 25 when The Globe sought information on the Human Resources Department's TV presence during the Winter Olympics.

Bureaucrats calculated the value of the advertising campaign and prepared an answer the same day. Before making it public, however, they consulted Mr. Sparrow and other political officials on the proposed response.

"The ad appeared on national networks, aboriginal and ethnic networks. The total TV media buy was approx $4,536,000. The Olympics package had a net cost of $1,849,829.00," the chief of media relations, Patricia Valladao, said in an e-mail to Mr. Sparrow and two other ministerial aides, Michelle Bakos and Ana Curic.

Mr. Sparrow answered by telling the bureaucrats to "amend the response," to simply say: "One 30-second TV ad was created in support of Canada's Economic Action Plan. The ad started running the week of January 18th and will end with the Olympics. The ad highlights key government programs available to Canadians who have been affected by the economic downturn: extended EI benefits, retraining opportunities, apprenticeship grants and self employed EI benefits."

That response was sent out the next day, on Feb. 26, shortly after 12 p.m.

Within minutes, The Globe followed up by specifically requesting "the monetary value of the department's media buy" between Jan. 18 and the end of the Winter Olympics, on Feb. 28.

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Bureaucrats forwarded that e-mail to Mr. Sparrow, and specifically recommended "to go back to our original response."

Mr. Sparrow refused to budge. "The original response is fine," he said in an e-mail at 1:36. Three minutes later, he quickly typed up another note to ensure that his directive was not misunderstood and that bureaucrats did not offer any new information.

In an unpunctuated e-mail, he wrote: "Hold to clarify my amended response is the one I want used no figures."

Bureaucrats brought up the matter later that day with Peter Larose, the assistant deputy minister of public affairs at the Human Resources Department, and then consulted Mr. Sparrow once again. Even though the response did not contain the dollar figures requested by The Globe, the department decided to tell the paper at the end of the workday: "We have provided you with all the information available at this point."

Human Resources finally sent the information on the monetary value of the media buy on March 18, three weeks after The Globe made a request for the February e-mails under Access to Information.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

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