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Tories seek probe after email withheld

Kelvin Goertzen

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Kelvin Goertzen (WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

Manitoba Progressive Conservatives have asked the province's ombudsman to investigate why the government withheld a key email in a scandal involving a former NDP cabinet minister.

The PCs don't accept the government's explanation the email was inadvertently missed when they filed a freedom of information request for certain government correspondence in May 2012.

They didn't obtain a copy of the key email -- involving former immigration and multiculturalism minister Christine Melnick -- until they filed an almost identical request under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) nearly two years later.

"I'm looking for a fulsome investigation," PC house leader Kelvin Goertzen said Tuesday after putting his request to the ombudsman in writing.

"Hopefully this will be dealt with quickly and effectively, because I do think that we need to have confidence in the system," he said.

In April 2012, there was a highly charged debate at the legislature over Ottawa's intention to change how immigration-settlement services were delivered in Manitoba. Hundreds of people from the immigrant community and immigrant organizations attended. Many had been invited to the partisan event via email by Ben Rempel, Melnick's assistant deputy minister. Melnick initially insisted, when questioned, Rempel had acted on his own in issuing the invitation. It wasn't until nearly 11/2 years later it was learned she had directed Rempel to issue the invite.

The Tories filed their initial FIPPA request seeking government email correspondence pertaining to the April 19, 2012, debate on May 4 of that year. But the response contained no smoking gun linking the minister to the invitation.

It was only when they filed a second FIPPA request for the same information earlier this year they received an email indicating Melnick had, in fact, directed Rempel to act. But by then her involvement had been known for months and she was no longer in cabinet.

When the Tories asked why the email had not been included in response to their first request, the government said the omission had been inadvertent.

"There was no political direction to hold the email -- it was simply missed at the department level," said Jeff Parr, deputy minister of the now Labour and Immigration Department.

However, the Conservatives are not satisfied with the response and want the provincial ombudsman to launch a probe.

"I'm not buying the idea that it was a clerical error when it was the hottest issue at the time," said Goertzen, referring to the question of whether Rempel, a bureaucrat, had been directed to perform an allegedly politically partisan act.

Goertzen noted the email in question had been cc'd to Rempel and several other members of the Immigration Department at the time, meaning it should have been easy to locate.

NDP house leader Andrew Swan said Tuesday the government would "co-operate fully" with any investigation by the ombudsman.

"It's disappointing that the Conservatives decided to attack public servants (about the missed email). That's what they've done in this case. The deputy minister has made it very clear that it was an inadvertent miss..." Swan said.

The email first turned up in June 2012 in the course of an ombudsman's investigation into Rempel's conduct in the affair.

(The ombudsman's office had been asked by a member of the public to investigate whether Rempel had engaged in partisan action in issuing the invite. Acting ombudsman Mel Holley ruled Rempel's actions raised concerns but broke no rules.)

While the province found the email shortly after responding to the PCs' first FIPPA request, it did not turn it over to the Tories.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

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The NDP government should not be trusted!!! They have told to many non truths!!

Vote Conservative next election.

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