Disgraced former cabinet minister Christine Melnick sought the advice of one of Premier Greg Selinger's closest advisers before an invitation went out to immigrant groups to attend a controversial legislative debate almost two years ago, emails show.
The series of emails, obtained through a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) request, shows Melnick consulted with Anna Rothney, the secretary of the planning and priorities committee of cabinet and senior-most political staffer in the government, on an NDP motion condemning Ottawa for changes to immigration-settlement services.
"We should invite service providers, newcomers, ethnic community + business community leaders to the House to see it read + debated," the former immigration minister wrote in an April 15, 2012 email to Rothney, six government staff members and then-NDP house leader Jennifer Howard.
Feb. 3: Melnick calls out Selinger
Feb. 4: Selinger removes Melnick from caucus
Rothney replied to Melnick the next morning.
"We're arranging a meeting to discuss this morning, and then again (redacted) this afternoon," she said.
In a second email on April 18, 2012, Melnick asks Rothney about inviting more people to the legislative building the next day. "Should I have Sarah (Melnick's special assistant) hitting the phones tomorrow for specific calls?" Melnick said.
A minute later Rothney replies by email: "Wouldn't hurt. Thanks!"
The controversy over how Melnick's department issued that invitation goes back to an April 19, 2012 resolution criticizing the federal government's plan to take over some immigration programs run by the province.
Melnick has admitted that on the previous day, she directed her assistant deputy minister, Ben Rempel, to send an email to government-funded immigrant-service agencies telling them of the afternoon event. More than 400 people jammed the public gallery and an overflow committee room.
Melnick has also admitted she unintentionally misled the legislature by denying at a May 20, 2012 committee meeting she had directed Rempel to send the email. She said it was because of memory loss due to undiagnosed diabetes and apologized. Her involvement was revealed in a provincial ombudsman's report that looked into the matter after an unknown citizen complained about partisanship in the civil service.
Selinger dropped Melnick from cabinet in October before the report's release. He has said he punted Melnick in part because she lied about her involvement in inviting immigrant-service groups to the legislature. She was expelled from the NDP caucus Feb. 4 after accusing Selinger of making her a scapegoat in the controversy. She claimed it was Selinger's senior political advisers, including Rothney, who were behind Rempel's invitation.
The NDP declined to make Rothney available for an interview Wednesday, but cabinet spokesman Matt Williamson said in an email Rothney did not know Melnick was intending to use her department staff in this invitation process.
Selinger said during question period Wednesday some of his cabinet ministers, MLAs and senior staff were all involved in inviting people to the legislature to hear the debate.
However, he has said no senior staff members or MLAs had any input on Melnick's instruction to Rempel -- that was her decision alone.
Selinger's reply came during repeated questions from the Opposition Progressive Conservatives about when he and his cabinet ministers knew Melnick had directed Rempel to send his email invitation. Questions were also aimed at Howard, now finance minister, Justice Minister Andrew Swan, Jobs and Economy Minister Theresa Oswald and Housing Minister Peter Bjornson.
Selinger said he only found out Melnick was behind the email in the fall of 2012 through staff, who had learned about the ombudsman's investigation into the matter. He said he did not go public because he wanted to let the ombudsman finish his probe.
PC Leader Brian Pallister said by staying quiet for 17 months -- the ombudsman's report was released last December -- Rempel was left to dangle.
"That premier, and I suspect many of his colleagues, sat on information that would have cleared from wrongdoing an innocent civil servant," Pallister said.